11 January 2018

Why Pakistan and America Can't Stand Each Other—But Can't Step Away

Mohammed Ayoob

There was a time in the 1960s when Pakistan was referred to as America’s “most allied ally” because of its membership in several multilateral defense organizations, such as SEATO and CENTO, led by the United States. Washington still technically considers it a “major non-NATO ally.” This was an honor conferred in 2004, largely in response to President Pervez Musharraf’s support for the American invasion of Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of 2001. But one would not guess that fact from hearing or reading President Trump’s recent diatribes against Pakistan.

In his first tweet on New Year’s Day, Trump singled out Pakistan for harsh criticism. He declared, “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”

Trump’s warning came soon after his administration leaked the news that it was planning to withhold $255 million in U.S. aid to Islamabad. The tweet was followed in a few days’ time by the announcement that Washington was freezing nearly all security aid, amounting to $1.3 billion annually, to Pakistan. The United States has made such threats periodically, especially in July 2011, two months after the assassination of Osama bin Laden, without succeeding in changing Pakistan’s policy toward Afghanistan and its support for groups that the United States calls terrorists. Small course corrections apart, Islamabad has gone about business as usual, and eventually Washington has been forced to come to terms with the new constants in Pakistan’s foreign and security policies.

The main reason why successive American administrations have been unable to force Pakistan to alter the direction of its foreign policy, despite billions of dollars in aid, is that the principal objectives of the two countries’ foreign policies are vastly different from each other, and often run counter to one another. Until the end of the 1980s, the main American objective in South and Southwest Asia was to counter what it considered the Soviet Union’s push toward the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Alliances were formed with the intention of containing the Soviet Union and, if possible, pushing it out of the countries in which it had acquired influence.

As early as the early 1950s, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles perceived Pakistan to be a major military and political asset that could contribute to the containment of the Soviet Union, especially since its larger neighbor India had declined to accept this role. Consequently, the United States entered into a Mutual Defense Assistance Pact with Pakistan in 1954, and the latter joined the aforementioned multilateral anticommunist alliances.

Pakistan was willing to play the role assigned to it by Washington, as long as it served its principal objective: to “borrow power” from abroad in order to neutralize India’s inherent power superiority in South Asia. This need became especially acute for Pakistan after the First Kashmir War of 1947–48, which left the bulk of the disputed territory under Indian control. For Pakistan, anticommunism and anti-Sovietism were a ruse to attract military aid, in the form of sophisticated weapons as well as economic assistance from the United States.

The first major indication of Pakistan’s real goal came in the early 1960s, when, coinciding with the Sino-Indian War of 1962, it turned toward China, then America’s principal antagonist in Asia, for assistance to neutralize India. China and Pakistan, it became clear, shared a major strategic objective vis-à-vis India—and therefore Pakistan developed a close relationship with Beijing, despite the temporary setback it brought to relations with Washington.

India adopted a policy of nonalignment soon after independence in 1947, though deliberately tilting toward the Soviet Union starting in 1954, when the United States established an alliance relationship with Pakistan. Islamabad’s relations with Washington cooled in the 1960s, but were revived somewhat in 1971, when Pakistan expedited the rapprochement between the United States and China by facilitating Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to Beijing. In return, the United States supported Pakistan in its war with India in December 1971, in part to demonstrate to China that there were areas where Washington’s interests overlapped with those of Beijing.

But it was not until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in 1979–80, that America’s relations with Pakistan were rejuvenated, when President Zia-ul-Haq became the principal conduit funneling U.S. military aid to insurgents fighting the Soviet-supported regime in Kabul. This did not come without a price: Pakistan was allowed to keep a significant part of the arms being sent into Afghanistan, to bolster its own military strength vis-à-vis India.

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