Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recently stated that the US is “not trying to find a way to break the [US-Pakistan] relationship apart, we’re trying to find a way to build it.” It is striking that after being allies for 66 years, ties between the US and Pakistan are not strong enough to tide over frictions.
The desire for close ties with the US date back to Pakistan’s very creation. In an interview in 1947, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah stated that he was certain of American aid for Pakistan’s growth and development because “America needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs America”. Jinnah believed that Pakistan’s geo-strategic location would result in American aid for Pakistan.
Desirous of allies during the Cold War, the US too welcomed ties with Pakistan, especially since India under Nehru was non-aligned. According to a 1954 Department of State bulletin: “Pakistan has concrete assets to offer to the free world. She has a fine army which provided a large share of distinguished regiments to the Indian army before partition. She has ample manpower to expand that army. Her military traditions and ability are proved. She occupies an important location covering the invasion routes into the Indian sub-continent and also one which would enable her, under conditions of strength, to support the defence of the Near East proper.” For American policymakers too, Pakistan’s significance lay in its location and its tactical importance for the Cold War.
The two countries signed a Mutual Defence Agreement in 1954 and Pakistan entered into a number of US-led military alliances. Pakistan was part of the ‘Northern tier of containment’ during the 1950s and ’60s, a key ally in the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad during the 1980s and a frontline ally in the war against terrorism after 9/11.
However, as I explain in my book [Explaining Pakistan’s Foreign Policy: Escaping India], the US-Pakistan relationship has been one of differing expectations and that is why often both sides often feel let down.
Pakistan’s leaders and strategists have always perceived an existential threat from India and not from either communism or terrorism. For Pakistan, the United States was the ally who would provide aid which would help Pakistan gain parity with India, and ensure its safety and integrity against any Indian attack.
For the US, however, Pakistan was just one part of its larger containment strategy. The US, though not allied with India, never saw India as the enemy. Over the years this led to the ‘see-saw’ like relationship between the two countries. The relationship has been more tactical than strategic in nature ie there is very little in common between the two countries except that at certain times they need each other against a third antagonist.
Also, while dependent on American aid and assistance, Pakistan’s policy makers have always used the ‘India factor’ to justify their relationship with the US for their domestic audience. Pakistanis have rarely ever been told the true nature of the relationship or of how dependent Pakistan is—economically and militarily—on the United States. Instead of helping to reduce the anti-American fervour in Pakistan, its leaders have often preferred to use this anti-Americanism to play domestic politics.
What this also means is that despite ostensibly siding with United States against communism and terrorism, Pakistan’s leaders have always seen India as a greater threat than either communism or terrorism. That is the main reason why Pakistan has been reluctant to take action against all militant groups working on its territory and has instead preferred to pick and choose and only act against those groups who directly attack the government.
While violation of Pakistani sovereignty and anger at regular drone attacks are the explicit reason for the current Pakistan-US tensions, the real reasons lie underneath. Senator Kerry spelt them out when he said that US would “want a Pakistan that is prepared to respect the interests of Afghanistan, and to be a real ally in our efforts to combat terrorism.”
Pakistan’s security establishment has always sought a pro-Pakistan, anti-India, Afghan government. Support for the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and other individuals like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar stems from the belief that these groups—or ‘proxies’—would help Pakistan achieve this objective. However, this desire of Pakistan clashes with both Afghan as well as American goals. Similarly, while Pakistan’s security establishment is willing to take on any militants who attack within Pakistan—aka the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan—they are reluctant to act against either the Afghan-focused groups or the India-focused groups (like Lashkar-e-Taiba and others). India is still perceived as a greater threat to Pakistan’s stability than these terrorist networks.
By calling his memoirs, ‘Friends Not Masters’, Pakistan’s military ruler Gen Ayub Khan was sending a message to Pakistan and to the US. To the domestic audience Ayub wanted to demonstrate that under him—ie the Pakistani military—Pakistan was capable of standing up to even the Americans. And to the Americans, Ayub was stating that while Pakistan wanted to be friends with the US, it would not come at any cost. Four decades later, Pakistan’s security establishment seems to be sending the same message to Pakistanis and American policy makers.
The difference today, however, is that many Americans are asking a similar question: Is Pakistan a friend or an enemy? A cross-section of the American populace and policy makers are seriously considering whether or not to cut American aid to Pakistan. This would be disastrous for Pakistan’s economy and for its fledgling democracy. According to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, it was inconceivable that Osama bin Laden could have lived in Pakistan for so many years “without some form of complicity”. Resonating the frustration expressed by other American policy makers and lay public, Senator Feinstein further said, “we [the US] provide funds, we try to help the government [of Pakistan] wherever we can and get little in return.” Senator Carl Levin, chairman of Senate Armed Services Committee, sent a similar message when he said: “I think it’s important that we have a good relationship with Pakistan, but not at any price.”
Senator John Kerry’s mission to Pakistan over the weekend demonstrated the critical juncture at which this relationship currently stands. In some of the harshest words he has ever used Senator Kerry stated that US-Pakistan ties stand at the point of “make or break” and that “actions and not words” would dictate, “what road will be taken.” At the same time, Kerry reiterated that the US and Pakistan are “strategic partners with a common enemy in terrorism. Both of our countries have sacrificed too many of our citizens and troops to consider abandoning this relationship. Far too much is at stake”. Soon after meetings between Senator Kerry and high-ranking civilian and military officials the Pakistani government issued a statement which said that “Pakistan-US relations should go forward on the basis of mutual respect, mutual trust and mutual interest.” What this meant was that while Pakistan was willing to rebuild ties with the US, a win-win outcome would have to be found for the Pakistani administration to be able to sell it to its public.
In the days and weeks ahead, there will be more high-level visits to Pakistan while senior officials and interlocutors in both administrations try to find a middle ground to help reset the relationship. After being allies for over six decades and at a time when American assistance is critical to Pakistan’s civilian democratic future, it would be disastrous for the region—and Pakistan—if this relationship collapsed.