Pak-US Ties – An Uneasy Alliance

Since Pakistan’s emergence on the world map, Pak-US ties have been characterised more by mutual dependence than shared interests as is the norm. America to its credit has always made its concerns clear: Soviet Union being its favourite bugbear till the end of the Cold War and the deceptively ambiguous war on terror thereafter. Though Pakistan officially tows the same line, its commitment is diffused by the singular prism, that of India, through which it views all its assessments.

In terms of Pak-US friendship, the best years were during the stewardship of President General Ayub Khan, till the boom of guns along the India-Pakistan border in September 1965 shattered the tranquility of the honeymoon. This resulted in the US cutting off aid to both the countries, which caused great outrage within Pakistan, as the move was felt to only hurt one country which till that time was completely reliant on US military largesse. While Pakistan felt let down by its closest ally, the US on its part was equally annoyed at this display of recklessness in squandering resources as well as the stock of US-supplied hardware against an adversary other than the one for which it was meant, the Soviet Union.m

Some common ground was again found when Pakistan facilitated the US in penetrating the Bamboo Curtain in a bid to wean a huge country like China away from the possible embrace of the Soviet bear. Throughout the year 1971, however, Pakistan kept receiving bad press internationally owing to its failure to cede power to the popularly elected Awami League and its subsequent violent military crackdown in erstwhile East Pakistan, resulting in a flood of refugees. Following India’s direct military involvement in what Pakistan perceived to be an internal matter, the latter’s expectation of a robust US intervention in its favour having seemingly failed to materialise, it further added to its sense of aggrievement. To be fair, the US did despatch a Carrier Group to the Bay of Bengal to signal its commitment and more tellingly, extracted a private promise from India to limit its territorial incursions in the western theatre.

It was however only when Pakistan decided to go the nuclear route following India’s detonation of a test device in 1974 by negotiating the acquisition of a nuclear reprocessing plant from France that America expressed its true annoyance. In preventing Pakistan thus, the US was supposedly guided by the principle of preventable non-proliferation, while Pakistan understandably took it as a one-sided restraint.

A convergence of interests again emerged with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. In Pakistan, America rediscovered a long lost Cold War ally, all too eager and willing to help bog down the Soviets in their self-created mess, but at a price. The US caught up in its own fervour did not shy away from the tag: conferring legitimacy on a Dictator reviled internationally for his brutal ways, softening its nuclear-related concerns, giving the country free rein in managing the Afghan resistance and backing it all up with a huge amount of military-cum-economic aid to a suffocating country.

As the Afghan war looked like winding down, developments taking place in the US Congress, the Pressler Amendment in particular, which required the US President to annually certify that Pakistan was not inching towards a nuclear weapons program, should have served as a clear warning sign. But simply because the country under the autocracy of President General Ziaul Haq remained exclusively focussed on indefinitely prolonging the war, or in the words of the General himself, to ‘keep the pot boiling, but not so much that it boils over’, it failed to read the writing on the wall.

So understandably when the Soviets followed through on their announced unconditional withdrawal, Pakistan found itself ill- prepared as the Pressler Amendment kicked in. This move could have been predicted as once the country’s facilitatory role in the anti-Soviet resistance diminished, so did the US need for turning a blind eye to its nuclear program.

US annoyance was most visible when Pakistan, despite international calls for restraint, responded to Infia’s nuclear testing in 1998 with six tests of its own. Pak-US relations thereafter underwent a period of estrangement till the horrific events of 9/11 bizarrely brought the two countries together again. The emergent dire situation gave a new lease of life to another military dictator in power, who was not given much of a choice when unconditional support to the US-led coalition was demanded. The ferocity of the UN-sanctioned assault forced the Taliban to cave in, and thinking that they had been completely routed, US turned its attention to the senior Al-Qaeda leadership believed to have made their way to various cities of Pakistan.

So while high-profile arrests were being made in Pakistan, the tribal areas along the Pak-Afghan border played host to the remnants of Al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban, which went about silently regrouping and reorganising themselves for the next round. The lavish use of money by the Al-Qaeda operatives and their beneficiaries in areas where they were firmly ensconced helped radicalise the local youth. Just as the Afghan taliban commenced attacking NATO and Afghan government targets within Afghanistan, a new breed of Pakistani militants under the ideological influence of Al-Qaeda and the strategic guidance of former disgruntled members of the Pakistani military expanded their footprint on both the Federally and Provincially Administered tribal areas, as well as the so-called settled areas. So relentless were the attacks on Pakistan’s military and civilian targets, notably the ones on the well-defended Genersl Headquarters and the Aemy Parade Lane mosque that the administration was put on the defensive and in the context of South Waziristan was twice forced to sue for peace on unfavourable terms.

The rapid takeover of the peaceful valley of Swat by a group of the Pakistani Taliban, which unleashed a reign of terror there, while virtually knocking on the doors of Islamabad, proved to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Pakistan’s military hit back strongly to reassert control in general over all outlying areas with the exception of North Waziristan. It was here though that militants of all shades, including Arabs, Uzbeks, Chechens, Uighurs and the do-called Punjabi Taliban, converged to form a supposedly invincible bastion, free to train, indoctrinate, plan and undertake attacks at will. When the magnitude and frequency of such attacks mounted from this border region into Afghanistan, along with the targeting of NATO convoys within Pakistan, showed an exponential increase, so did calls from the US Administration to ‘do more’, a mantra which the Pakistani establishment found irksome.

America’s main cause of concern is presently the Haqqani Group(believed to be holed up in North Waziristan), which stands accused of some of the worst atrocities in Afghanistan. The invasion of North Waziristan was not something which Pakistan had an appetite for owing to its intended and unintended consequences. The Pakistani Taliban’s brazen attack on the Karachi International Airport in mid-2014 finally forced the government’s hand on this remaining militant bastion and the subsequent senseless killing of 140 young students of the Army Public School in Peshawar further strengthened its resolve.

Despite having asserted control over the entire tribal belt, Pakistan felt a bit let down by the international community in not having its sacrifices against terrorism adequately recognised. The US recognises this in its own way, which is why it has been the largest donor of both military and economic aid to Pakistan over the past 15 years. It is however not too impressed, despite officially expressed niceties, by the spread of militancy inside Pakistan as it feels that the country has been ensnared in a web of its own making. Pakistan’s counter complaint is that that US is using the country as a scapegoat to justify its own failures in Afghanistan.

Both countries are conscious that Afghanistan’s stability is in their mutual interest. But that’s where the similarity in thinking ends; the US wants Pakistan to rein in the Haqqani Group which it considers responsible for a majority of the attacks on NATO forces, while Pakistan denies the presence of this group within its territory. The Quetta shura, a representative body of the Afghan Taliban, whose presence has now been officially acknowledged, is another contentious issue; the US wants Pakistan to use its leverage to coerce the Taliban leadership into meaningful negotiations, while Pakistan denies that it has that sort of clout, but that it is indeed nudging them In this direction.

American unilateralism within Pakistani territory, whether in the form of Bin Laden’s assassination in Abbotabad, the unwarranted gunship attack on a Pakistani border checkpoint or its drone policy, has been the source of Pakistan’s biggest headache. A further redline was recently crossed with the assassination of the Afghan Taliban supremo, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, in Baluchistan, just inside the Pak-Iran border. Pakistan naturally voiced its displeasure over the incident by complaining that its timing showed that the US was not interested in resolving the issue through dialogue. While Pakistan feels that the deceased commander had assented to the Taliban’s presence at the next meeting of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group, the US version is that he had been stalling for a long time and the recently conducted brutal attack on the Afghan intelligence headquarters in Kabul revealed his ill-intentions.

While the US at the official level has been rather diplomatic about the state of its relations with Pakistan, many of its high-ranking officials have been informally denouncing it’s supposedly duplicitous policy, with President Obama, no less, venting his frustration by referring to it as a ‘disastrously dysfunctional state’. Richard Holbrooke, the US Special AfPak Envoy summed it up best by admitting in Feb 2010 that ‘this is the most complicated relation with an ally that I’ve ever experienced. I don’t want to mislead you;its still fragile’. Michael Hayden, a former CIA Director, was a bit more generous in conceding that this difficulty in working with Pakistan and its ISI in particular ‘did not evolve out of malice but of very different world views’.

Though the current US Administration is still intent on keeping up appearances as far as possible, many Congressmen are increasingly becoming more vocal, shooting down the Administration’s proposal to subsidise the sale of F-16 fighters and stridently questioning whether Pakistan should be treated as an ally or as a state sponsor of terrorism. Though it is understandable that national interests should indeed guide Pakistan’s Afghan policy, fraying American nerves to snapping point under the broader scheme of countering India is not a prospect worth relishing.

By all indications, the next US Administration might not be as indulgent or as understanding as the current one is. Sooner rather than later, the onus to convince an increasingly sceptical American leadership about its sincerity and commitment to peace would fall on Pakistan rather than the other way round. Keeping our military and economic dependence on the US in mind, falling afoul of a superpower would be an unfortunate outcome, particularly when the differences stem from perceptions rather than national interests.


Note: This was published in the August 2016 edition of the monthly magazine ‘Global Age’.

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