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Pakistan-US ties: old wine, new bottle?

Aparna Pande

The US and Pakistan have renewed their strategic dialogue after a pause of three years. However, with their being little difference in how each side views the other’s policies and the region, it is like an old wine in a new bottle. Pakistan’s current national security advisor and foreign affairs advisor, Mr Sartaj Aziz, was in Washington DC leading Pakistan’s delegation in the strategic dialogue. The theatrics (I do not want to use this word but what else can I use?) of the large delegation, including both civilian and military personnel, is impressive and is led by a veteran diplomat, someone who has worked effortlessly under both civilian and military rule. However, if you listen closely you could be mistaken for believing you were back in the 1950s, if not the 1980s.

The argument being made is that Pakistan lives in a volatile neighbourhood, there is a need for economic growth and there are security challenges. The security challenges are traced back to the 1980s when the US and Pakistan “together trained and armed” the mujahideen (religious fighters) and then the US ‘left’ Pakistan to deal with the problems in the 1990s.

As has happened often in the last decade, every time there is strategic dialogue the main argument put forth from Islamabad (and Rawalpindi) is the need to convert the transactional nature of the US-Pakistan relationship into a strategic one. The standard argument put forth is the need to build trust between not just the two countries but also their institutions. What is being referred to — but not stated openly — is not only the lack of trust between the civilian but also the military/intelligence establishments. For decades, the bedrock of the US-Pakistan relationship was the close ties between the security establishments on both sides but these have eroded and will take years to rebuild.

At every strategic dialogue meeting between the US and Pakistan, the main point being made is that the US needs to pay “greater attention” to Pakistan’s security concerns. Examples of the US ‘abandoning’ Pakistan in 1990 and not being ‘sensitive’ to Pakistan’s concerns after 9/11 are brought up. However, what is really being stated is that Pakistan would like to be treated as the ‘most allied ally’ like it used to be in the 1950s and that close US ties with India — especially the civilian nuclear deal of 2006 — are seen as a betrayal by Pakistan. To those who have followed Pakistan’s foreign policy and US-Pakistan relations, these arguments are not new.

When Pakistan first approached the US for aid, way back in 1947, the main argument put forth was that Pakistan’s geostrategic location made it an indispensable ally. The Cold War and the US’s desire for allies in the region helped Pakistan become the anchor of US policy. This helped the provision of economic and military aid to Pakistan from the 1950s onwards. Pakistan’s foreign policy has always had a key regional focus: the desire for parity — primarily military but also economic — with India. Pakistan’s ties with both its other neighbours and countries beyond the region has been predicated on whether or not these countries help Pakistan create a regional balance with India.

For Pakistan, the US was the ally who would provide aid that would help Pakistan gain parity with India and ensure its safety and integrity against any Indian attack. Hence any action by the US to build ties with or provide aid to India was seen as disrupting the so-called regional balance.

At periodic intervals, whenever Pakistan’s leaders felt that the US was coming close to India, they would complain of the US’s betrayal. Through the 1950s and 1960s, Pakistan’s first military ruler, General Ayub Khan, repeatedly asserted to his US counterparts — from President Eisenhower to Kennedy to Johnson — the dependability of the Pakistani alliance and the need to avoid trusting — or aiding and arming — India. Generals Zia through Musharraf continued to make similar arguments to their US counterparts. Over the decades, Pakistan’s civilian leaders have bought into the parity argument and hence, even during civilian rule, what Pakistan seeks from the US alliance has not changed.

For the US, however, Pakistan was just one part of its larger containment strategy and the US, though not allied with India, never saw India as the enemy. From the 1990s onwards, ties between India and the US steadily improved. India’s rising economic power, its support for counter-terrorism and the need to include a nuclear India among the world powers also played a role. Starting from President Clinton’s visit in 2000, but especially from 2005, the US started building closer ties with India culminating in the March 2006 Indo-US nuclear deal.

The last decade has also led to changes in how the US views the region. Until recently, the US only had one ally in the region, Pakistan. In order to assuage its only ally in the region, the US followed a policy of hyphenating India and Pakistan; a sort of parity, which was appreciated by the Pakistanis and resented by the Indians. Today, the US has a stake in the stability of Afghanistan and a strategic relationship with India. While the US still seeks a stable Pakistan, it no longer perceives the region from the Pakistani prism. Also, the US decided to de-hyphenate their policy towards India and Pakistan, treating each country separately. While India welcomed this move, Pakistan saw it as causing a regional imbalance and sought its reinstatement.

As part of its policy of seeking parity with India and seeking influence in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s security establishment has followed a policy of supporting proxies, jihadi groups, both in India and Afghanistan. These groups vary from Kashmir-focused groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and their allied groups. During the 1980s and 1990s, the US often turned a blind eye to this aspect of Pakistan’s policies. However, after 9/11 and with the presence of US troops in Afghanistan, this changed.

Pakistan’s foreign policy has been a perennial search for that elusive ally that would provide it with resources and also stand up to India. The US has remained Pakistan’s primary choice as the country that would help achieve this goal. Even though the US has been increasingly reluctant to do so, at regular intervals Pakistan’s leaders express the desire of how they would like their relationship to go back to what it was during the Cold War, not only in terms of the aid provided but more so in terms of regional balance. Unable to achieve parity on its own, Pakistan has sought US help for doing so.

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