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The Future of U.S.-Pakistan Ties

Aparna Pande

And would some Power the small gift give us
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion“ – Robert Burns

If only leaders of countries and their elite looked at their mirror once in a while to see how the world is looking at them, things would be different. Ties between the U.S. and Pakistan have always had a see-saw like quality but in the last year the friction has increased and led to brinkmanship.

The question asked often in Washington is what does Pakistan want and the answer is not the simple one of stopping drone strikes or allowing more sharing of intelligence. Instead it is the same thing that Pakistan’s leaders have sought since the 1950s: Pakistan would like the U.S. to look at South Asia through the Pakistani prism, “recognize” the need for a “balance” of power in the region with India, “realize” how important Afghanistan is to Pakistan’s security interests and therefore understand “why” Pakistan needs to use asymmetrical means to secure its interests.

Following from this is the Pakistani hope and desire that the U.S. would use its influence with India to ensure a resolution of not only Kashmir but all other India-Pakistan disputes.

From the 1950s through the 1980s, the relations between the U.S. and Pakistan were by and large friction free. American strategists saw Pakistan’s army, its manpower and its geo-strategic location as important for building the northern tier of containment vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Pakistani policy makers always made it seem as though Pakistan was crucial to U.S. policies in the Middle East and over the years the Americans came to believe that to be the case.

The fact that Pakistan is part of CENTCOM (Central Command), with other countries of the Middle East, and not PACOM (Pacific Command), where India and the rest of South Asia is located ensured that for American strategists, Pakistan was part of the Greater Middle East and not part of South Asia. This helped Pakistan’s leaders too, as their foreign policy has been built on the desire to escape an Indian (and South Asian) identity and seek a Muslim Middle Eastern identity. (A full treatment of this is in my book Explaining Pakistan’s Foreign Policy: Escaping India.)

What is also interesting to note is that the areas of conflict arose every time the U.S. tried to ensure that its ties with India did not suffer from any closer ties with Pakistan. President Eisenhower tried to balance the relationship with both countries and even offered India military aid and in a letter to Premier Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister (1947-64), stated that the military aid to Pakistan would not be used against India.

Similarly, the U.S. insisted that the wording of the SEATO (South East Asian Treaty Organization) treaty include a reservation that American obligation would only extend to cases of Communist aggression. Pakistan’s leaders saw this as an attempt to exclude India and hence as an example of America not being a faithful friend.

President Kennedy sought to build ties with India and offered military aid and assistance to India during the 1962 Sino-Indian war. General Muhammad Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military ruler and army chief (1958-1969) requested in response that the U.S. use economic assistance as leverage to solve the Kashmir dispute. President Kennedy refused stating that the U.S. did not give aid in the expectation of getting “Nehru’s support on the items that were vital to the U.S.” but because it was in “everyone’s” interest that India not collapse.

The American decision to freeze aid to both India and Pakistan in 1965 did not resonate well in Pakistan either. Pakistan and the U.S. also disagreed on how each saw the 1965 war and the cutting off of American aid. President Ayub Khan’s aide-memoire to the United States reminded the Americans of what Pakistan believed to be their obligation under the 1959 U.S.-Pakistan bilateral agreement and asked for U.S. assistance as “Pakistan has become a victim of naked aggression by armed attack on the part of India.”

For American policy makers, Pakistan was expecting them to do things they had never promised. In 1951, while attending a Town Hall meeting with Liaquat Ali Khan, George Kennan, well-known American diplomat, historian and political scientist, had stated: “our friends must not expect us to do things which we cannot do. It is no less important that they should not expect us to be things which we cannot be.”

From the viewpoint of Pakistan, especially its military-intelligence establishment, the 1980s are the ideal on which U.S.-Pakistan ties should be set. During the 1980s anti-Soviet Afghan jihad, Pakistan’s ties with the Islamist groups helped achieve American goals in Afghanistan. Also, the Americans were willing to contract the war out to Pakistan, the view being: ‘Let local boys fight local wars.’ Further, the U.S. did not have any stake in the stability or future of Afghanistan nor deep ties with India.

What Pakistan’s strategists and elite ignore is that today things are different. Ties between India and the U.S. have deepened in the last two decades. Deep economic and strategic ties have grown between the two countries which have been built on their shared ideals of democracy, secularism and pluralism. Succeeding American administrations have emphasized the strategic nature of the relationship with India. Hence, the U.S. has a stake in the stability and future of India. Similarly, with American troops present in Afghanistan and an American stake in Afghanistan’s future, the U.S. is not willing to ‘go back to the 1980s’ either.

Any attempt by the U.S. to dissuade Pakistan from seeing India as a threat has historically been countered by Pakistani arguments that the U.S. is not able to see through Indian perfidy and that it is located too far off to come to Pakistan’s aid if something does happen. The U.S. must, therefore, build Pakistan’s military capacity in order for Pakistan to stand up to Indian aggression. In 1959 General Ayub argued that Pakistan shared a very long border with India both in its Eastern and Western wings, and “how could we guarantee that whilst we are engaged elsewhere, India with three times our military strength would not march into our country?” Decades later in 2008, when the U.S. requested that Pakistan move more of its troops from its eastern to its western borders, the Pakistani response was the same.

Just as if the core of an identity or nationalism is more negative than positive it results in an identity which is confused. Similarly if the core of a relationship is more anti a third party than pro the two existing parties, it will prevent that relationship from growing roots. Pakistan’s relationship with India is built on geography and shared history and culture and the two countries will benefit from building it further. Similarly Pakistan’s ties with the U.S. need to move beyond being seen simply through the strategic prism of India (and Afghanistan) and only then can the relationship achieve its true potential.

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