U.S.-Pakistan ties have been in a downward spiral since the beginning of this year, but now they seem to be in free fall. The Pakistani state insists on playing the injured victim and betrayed ally card, both for domestic consumption and as an oft-overused bargaining tool. And the US administration appears to have become impatient with an always-complaining ally who is reluctant to face reality.
US-Pakistan relations have always had a see-saw nature. So at one level the current frictions in the relationship are not surprising.
As I show in my book (Explaining Pakistan’s Foreign Policy: Escaping India) Pakistan has always looked to the US as a country who would bolster Pakistan’s meager resources—both economic and military—in order to help Pakistan achieve parity with India. Pakistan also hoped for American assistance in any conflict with India. From the US perspective, however, Pakistan was one of the cogs in the wheel in the ‘northern tier of containment’ against the Soviet Union during the Cold War and a frontline ally against terrorism after 9/11. While the US provided immense amounts of economic and military aid, American administrations did not support Pakistan during any of its conflicts with India. Also, during the last two decades ties between India and the US have grown in many areas.
The bedrock of Pakistan’s ties with the US has always been the security relationship, the military-to-military ties and the intelligence relationship between the two countries. Through the 1960s, 70s and especially during the 1980s, there were very close ties. Top American military officials like former chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, and former CENTCOM commander and current CIA chief General David Petraeus, have tried to build ties with Pakistan because of their own positive experiences in the past. However, starting in the 1990s, the ties began to weaken.
When they were rebuilt after 9/11, the American military-intelligence establishment saw what they perceived as duplicitous behavior. Pakistan was an ally in the war on terror and had provided its territory and troops for assistance to the American-led international forces in Afghanistan. And yet, the Pakistani state’s allowing of ‘safe havens’ within its border and use of jihadi groups as proxies—like the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and their allies—hurt American interests and American lives.
The mistrust in the American security establishment is deepening. The raid that killed Osama Bin Laden and repeated instances of cross-border violations by both American Special Operations Forces and NATO helicopters has to be seen in this context. When we read the statement by now retired Admiral Mullen, that the Haqqani network was “a veritable arm of the ISI,” we would do well to remember that Admiral Mullen made over 27 trips to Pakistan to meet with General Kayani and other Pakistani officials.
The mistrust is also visible in the response to the latest NATO attack on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Both sides have their own versions of the incident. Pakistan has closed its land borders to NATO supplies and there is no sign yet on when they will re-open. According to Pakistan Premier Yousaf Raza Gilani, “business as usual” would not be possible and “the democratic government would not allow similar attack on the country’s sovereignty, and any (such) attempt in future will definitely meet the detrimental response”. Pakistan’s army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has reportedly ordered his troops to respond to any violations of the border without waiting for orders from above. Pakistan’s Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) Major General Ashfaq Nadeem referred to the incident as a “pre-planned conspiracy” by “supposed allies”.
NATO insists that the incident was “not a deliberate” violation. Instead of trying to go further in order to placate Pakistan, the American military establishment has tried to demonstrate that they are not as dependent on Pakistan’s logistical support as is made out to be. Further, while Pakistan has closed the land borders to NATO supplies, its air space is still open for use by NATO and the Americans. If Pakistan closed its air space as well, that would increase the problems for the US.
But US ties with Russia and the Central Asian states are not like they were during the 1960s, 70s or 80s. While there are areas in which they disagree, Russia has allowed the US to operate the northern route to supply its troops in Afghanistan. The longer, and more often, Pakistan closes its borders, the less leverage it will have, as the US will turn more and more to the northern route and even try other routes.
Ties between the civilian elements of both countries leave much to be desired. The Obama administration has repeatedly tried to bolster the civilian side of the Pakistani state both through the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill as well as by assistance in bolstering Pakistan’s weak economy. During every crisis, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton calls or visits Pakistan to calm things down. President Obama too called his Pakistani counterpart President Asif Ali Zardari to condole on the deaths of the Pakistani soldiers killed in the NATO strike.
However, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the American administration to ask for more assistance for Pakistan at a time when the mood in the Congress is becoming more and more anti-Pakistan. Soon after the NATO strikes, two leading Republican senators, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, called for a “full review” of ties with Pakistan stating that “US policy toward Pakistan must proceed from the realistic understanding that certain actions of Pakistan’s military are contributing to the death and injury of our men and women in the military and jeopardizing our national security interests.” Pakistan and aid to Pakistan has been a key topic of discussion at all Republican presidential debates.
In this context, it is unfortunate that Pakistan has lost one of their best interlocutors with the Americans, the former Pakistani ambassador to US Husain Haqqani.
The Pakistani state has often played the game of brinkmanship—or as an American analyst recently said, “Russian roulette”—with its neighbor India. Attempting to play this game with the Americans may prove problematic, or disastrous. Pakistan’s security establishment, especially its army, has been attempting to regain what it lost during the Musharraf years. While the government is civilian, the army still has a say in foreign policy, defence and security policy, economic policy and even in domestic politics. Pakistan’s army has always portrayed itself as the champion or protector of Pakistan’s “ideological and territorial frontiers”. While the army still remains “India-centric”—as General Kayani has often stated—it is much easier to gain public approval by “standing up to the US” these days than by standing up to India. It is in this context that we need to read the army becoming more turf conscious domestically (not allowing ISI to be under civilian control, for instance) as well as internationally (resisting the American attempt to boost civilian supremacy over the military, and championing of the ‘sovereignty’ issue).
Today we face problems in all aspects of the US-Pakistan relationship. On the American side there is, as always, a lack of a unified consistent policy by all segments of the American administration. In previous decades, the security establishment was the bedrock. Today, those ties still remain but there are deepening cracks in the edifice. With growing mistrust, there is increasing reliance on and likelihood of more drone strikes, Special Forces operations across the border in ‘hot pursuit’ of jihadis, and covert operations within Pakistan.
While the State Department and White House are still committed to the Pakistani relationship and would like to see a ‘stable, democratic Pakistan’, there are signs of growing American impatience with the civilian leadership. On the Pakistani side, the civilians are not strong enough and often use the ‘American card’ to play to a domestic audience which is 83% anti-American, according to the latest polls. The Pakistani military-intelligence establishment—increasingly comprised of the Zia generation and the ‘lost generation’ (more ideologically Islamist and anti-American)—sees the issues of ‘ghairat’ (honour) and ‘sovereignty’ as critical, if it has to maintain its legitimacy and status at home.
What Pakistan’s civilian and military establishments fail to understand is that this is not the 1960s or 1970s or the 1980s. During those decades, Pakistan was the only American ally in the sub-continent and the US often viewed the region from the Pakistani prism. That is no longer the case. There are American troops in Afghanistan and the US has a stake in Afghanistan’s future. America’s ties with India have deepened in the last two decades and the US also has a stake in India’s stability and future. Pakistan’s insistence on brinkmanship instead of a negotiated resolution of differences may result in the worst nightmare of its establishment: the US viewing Pakistan from the Indian and Afghan prisms.
Close and friendly ties between the US and Pakistan benefit not only these two countries but the entire region and beyond. For the US, good ties with Pakistan are important not only because it has troops in Afghanistan, but also because stability in the region depends on stability in Pakistan. While walking away from Pakistan and the region is an option, it would not help the US in the long term. And neither would it help other countries in the region—India, Afghanistan and China.
While the Obama administration has tried to change the policy followed by the previous administrations and attempted to boost the civilian side of the Pakistani state, there is more that can be done. The Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill and other American assistance to Pakistan has the potential to boost the civil society, rebuild the broken education system, provide energy assistance and eventually build a civilian democratic Pakistan. Pakistan is much more than just its civilian and security establishments and there is a need for genuine people-to-people interaction and partnerships.
It is Pakistan that will suffer from any further breakdown of ties with the US. It is dependent upon external assistance not just for its economy but also for energy and education, and American assistance and support is critical in this respect. Any more conflict with US, especially over Afghanistan, will only hurt Pakistan. Brinkmanship with a country that has the capability but not yet the desire or goal to cause harm is not pragmatic. As the Urdu proverb goes: whether the knife falls on the melon or the melon on the knife, the melon suffers.