The Real Story Behind US-Pakistan Relations: An Alliance of Convenience

May 5, 2011 | By Isaac Kfir


(First published on PARCC’s Conflict and Collaboration Blog, 5/04/2011)

The fallout from the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad allows for a closer look at US-Pakistani relations, which has been deteriorating for some time. Historically relations between the two have been turbulent and unpredictable, going through periods of exceptional cooperation to sanctions. It appears that the manner in which bin Laden died only exacerbates the already tense relations between the two (the public spat between US Admiral Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Pakistani General Ashtaq Kayani, Chief of the Army Staff is indicative of the deteriorating relations). Pakistanis are extremely weary of the way the United States conducts towards them, expecting that US aid money ensure Pakistani unquestionable fidelity. US policymakers do not realize that ordinary Pakistanis assert that their leaders, government officials, businessmen may be for sale, but not Pakistan and not them, who have the toil under the corruption that US aid fuels.

As American policymakers express their anger and astonishment that Osama bin Laden was able to reside in a mansion so closely to the Pakistanis capital, it would be useful for them to pause and realize how counterproductive this approach is, especially when successive US administrations emphasis Pakistan’s importance to US national interests. In many ways, Pakistanis often claim that the monster of Islamic terrorism is a product of US involvement in South Asia and they point to the role of people such as Charlie Wilson praising such men as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader ofHizb-I Islami. Put simply, you cannot call an ally work with an ally for years and then begin calling them incompetent, untrustworthy, unreliable and deceitful, and expect them to trust you and work closely with you.

US-Pakistani relations were forged when the US could not form an alliance with India following Partition, as India opted to take a path that at times put them on a collision course with Washington, as Delhi pursued its own agenda. Thus, when the US “lost” India it turned to Pakistan signing the Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement in 1954 and a number of other regional treaties that sought to bring the two countries closer together. From the Pakistani side, its desire for US support stemmed from Ayub Khan’s, (Pakistan’s president between 1958-1969) belief that the United States would and could aid Pakistan’s quest to industrialize and catch up with its archenemy, India. Washington for its part saw in Pakistan an important strategic ally not only against the Soviet Union but Communist China, with who the Americans had no diplomatic relations until the early 1970s. However, Pakistan quickly realized that it was the inferior partner in the alliance and its policymakers realized that overreliance on the US was an existential mistake, as Washington repeatedly abandoned Pakistan in its hour of need. Washington’s position was that it did not want to become entangled in conflicts on the Indian Subcontinent. This meant that whenever Pakistan and India went to war, Islamabad could never rely on US support. Consequently, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto sought an alliance with the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), which has continued to this day and which many Pakistanis value above all else, as China has shown itself to be a real ally, in that it never publically criticize Pakistan, even when Chinese nationals are killed by Pakistani extremists.

With the end of the Cold War, and India’s decision to embrace market capitalism and move away from its brand of socialism, a succession of US politicians and presidents courted Delhi, often at the expense of Pakistan. From an American perspective, this made tremendous sense as India was bigger and more powerful than Pakistan, not to mention a democracy. For Pakistanis what this showed was Washington’s real intention was to have an alliance with Delhi and once this was given, the US quickly forgot forty years of cooperation, friendship and commitment. Thus, in the 1990s as Pakistanis sought to deal with economic woes, the legacy of the Afghan Jihad (which Pakistanis maintain they fought on behalf of the US) and many other domestic issues, the US developed its alliance with India, leading the US to not only publicly criticize Pakistan but shun and humiliate it at times (Pakistanis still remember how many hours President Clinton spent in their country as opposed to the days he spent in India (in 2010 President Obama went to India and not Pakistan)).

When 9/11 occurred, US-Pakistani relations were transformed once again, with Pakistan becoming America’s closest and most valuable ally. US policymakers ignored Musharraf’s bloodless coup, the exiling of Pakistan’s most prominent politicians – Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto – and actively courted Pakistan, bestowing on Musharraf the honor of being the first South Asian leader to stay at Camp David. The hypocrisy continued, with Washington turning a blind eye, as Army Chief Pervez Musharraf circumvented democracy, allied himself with Islamic political parties and permitted gross human rights abuses to occur. Washington accepted these actions due to its fixation with the ‘war on terror,’ that called for the division of the world between those that support the US and those that stand with the terrorists. In 2007-2008, as Pakistan experienced its own ‘Arab Spring’, the US ended its support for Musharraf, who had been described as “a courageous leader and a friend of the United States” in favor of Asif Ali Zardari, a tainted politician with no real support in Pakistan. Unfortunately, for US-Pakistani relations, the Obama Administration has been as inconsistent as the Bush one, with President Obama continuing to court India, which worries Pakistan to no-end. When President Obama makes statements supporting Indian permanent membership in the Security Council, the temperature in Islamabad rises, as it has such tremendous implications for Pakistan, whether it is in respect to Kashmir or other differences that the two countries have. Such actions, supported by agreements over nuclear technology between the US and India, while Pakistan is forced to endure the humiliation of seeing US aid micromanage under the Kerry-Lugar Act does not assuage Pakistani paranoia about India undermining US-Pakistani relations. If it is true that the four US helicopters entered Pakistani airspace without authorization or without even appearing on Pakistani radars, Pakistani paranoia will increase, with the question of what if India was to undertake such a mission if there is another Mumbai attack, i.e. if the US breached Pakistani sovereignty why not India? Put simply, Washington repeatedly fails to appreciate that its actions and words carry grave consequences, as people take them very seriously.

Pakistanis watching the unfolding bin Laden saga are undoubtedly credulous not so much at the fact that bin Laden was able to find sanctuary in Abbottabad but that Americans despite their drones, satellites and CIA operatives did not find the world number 1 terrorist earlier. US policymakers need to realize that Pakistanis remember insults and finger-pointing. Pakistanis feel aggrieved by the attitudes and words that are being directed at them in the post-Bin Laden period especially as they are continuously rocked by Islamic terrorism that has claimed thousands of Pakistani lives. US policymakers forget or ignore that Pakistan knows that once the dust settles, Washington will turn to it again and seek its aid and assistance because this is what Washington always do, especially as US national security is becoming more and more intertwined with the fortunes of Pakistan. Pakistani policymakers know that the United States would not countenance the prospects of a “failed” Pakistani state, because of Pakistan’s nuclear program and because AfPak means that if one country fails, the other would follow suit. Having two failed states in South Asia is something that the international community (led by the US) will not accept. The challenge US-Pakistani relations face is the uncontrolled rhetoric and the media circus that has seen a litany of US politicians berate Pakistan, its behavior and commitment to the ‘war on terror’, which in turn has only worked to further anger Pakistanis at what they perceive is American hubris.

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