The relations between Pakistan and the US have remained enigmatic with the result that people call it a relationship of convenience. Pakistan accuses the US of changing sides after having used it for its objectives. The underlying reason for the lack of understanding and trust between the two countries in spite of having come closer on different occasions through different alliances and security agreements has been the absence of a shared vision in any issue both the countries joined hands to pursue. There was a relative congruence during the war against the Soviets from 1979-1989, but looking deeper, even that appears to have been used by each party to accelerate its own security agenda rather than a united common cause. As the political scientist, GW Choudhry put it, “The United States and Pakistan were moving in the same direction for different reasons. The US was guided by its global policy of containing international communism, and Pakistan was motivated by problem of national security and defence.” This ‘asymmetrical diplomacy’ remained at the heart of both the nation’s negotiating pattern giving rise to mistrust at different points in time.
Pakistan has always accused the US of not understanding its regional interests and demanding policies that would rather make things difficult for Pakistan. It has been this gap that led Pakistan to fork into a different path while ostensibly keeping to the common cause with the US. The problem had been the absence of a sense of value to remain engaged. Experts believe that Pakistan had been used as a pawn by the US to achieve its external goals, and for Pakistan, it was India that it needed the US for.
Pakistan inherited a large army with meagre resources on the partition with India. It needed US support to modernise and equip its army and arsenals that could be used to fight with the Indians when needed. Pakistan chose an anti-communist narrative to forge a common interest with the US. Ayub Khan had assumed that the military support Pakistan received from the US could be used against India without causing a major breach. In his memoir, he acknowledged: “The objectives that the Western powers wanted the Baghdad Pact to serve were quite different from the objectives we had in mind. Pakistan had never made any secret of [its] intentions or [its] interests and the US knew that Pakistan would use its new arms against its eastern neighbour.”
According to Vali Nasr, the Iranian-American academic and author, “Many observers think that Pakistan’s regional interest from the US are so far removed from those of the United States that no degree of aid and friendship can bridge the gap, making a collapse in the relationship inevitable all along.” American ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson wrote in one of her cables that money alone would not solve the problem of Taliban and Al Qaeda operating in Pakistan. Pakistan’s Afghan policies stem from its deep-seated fear about her regional standing vis-à-vis India and Iran, the two main contenders among many in Afghanistan. She further wrote: “The Pakistan establishment, as we saw in 1998, with the nuclear test, does not view assistance — even sizable assistance to their own entities — as a trade-off for national security.”
Pakistan’s inability to trust the US emanates from the larger insecurity Pakistan has suffered from since its birth in 1947. India’s ‘plot’ to undo Pakistan or make it a vassal state has been Pakistan’s greatest fear so far. This fear originates from the role India had played in the secession of East Pakistan. It was precisely India that prompted Pakistan to seek a large outside ‘balancer’. According to Ayub Khan, “The crux of the problem from the very beginning was the Indian attitude of hostility towards us: we had to look for allies to secure our position.”
Since the US has been unable to comprehend Pakistan’s geopolitical situation and the problems emanating from having a much larger and hostile India, Pakistan induced a sense of obligation in the minds of the Americans to do away with the power disparity with India. The US did assist Pakistan in this regard, but not when it was needed the most — in the 1971 war. Interpreted as a betrayal, Pakistan learned the lesson that it could never trust or depend on the US. It was a turning point for Pakistan and the beginning of its relations with China.
The 1971 war with India and the resultant breakup of Pakistan affected South Asia’s political dynamics in three ways: 1) India emerged as the leading or dominant power of the region; 2) Pakistan’s insecurity towards India intensified leading to the idea of ‘Strategic Depth’, and 3) ‘fear of Hindu India’ drifted Pakistan towards the policy of Islamisation. The idea behind the so-called Strategic Depth had been: 1) to offset India’s influence in Afghanistan by installing there a Pakistan-friendly government; 2) by replacing Pashtun nationalist and separatist sentiment with Islamism; 3) by training and preserving the ideological non-state actors for Pakistan’s regional policy objective and 4) by keeping the Durand Line contested.
To reinforce Pakistan’s security perception, the US-India relations came full circle with the return of the Republican government of George W Bush in 2001. The US took a ‘less absolutist’ view of New Delhi’s nuclear aspirations. The Republicans described India as “one of the largest democracies of the twenty-first century”, and proclaimed that the Bush administration would be “more sensitive to Indian security concerns, and more willing to accommodate India’s own aspirations to be a great power”.
As the war on terrorism broke out, India found a golden opportunity to heighten its security concerns against Pakistan and flaunt it as a ‘rogue’ country sponsoring terrorism in Indian occupied Kashmir. It had almost become a custom with many countries to link their militants with Al Qaeda and become recipients of the many benefits it brings. Burma did it with the Rohingya, persecuted and crushed them as the “Taliban”. India was no exception. It was quick to link Kashmir, the flashpoint of Pakistan-India rivalry, with the War on Terror and achieved several important military, political, economic and nuclear agreements with the US. It also helped India put the Kashmir issue into the deep freezer.
The war against terror had made Kabul the ‘new Kashmir’ — a battleground for India-Pakistan rivalry; but choosing to ignore this strategic change, the US obsessed with capturing Osama bin Laden, made a major mistake. By 2005-06, Musharraf was accusing Karzai of giving access to Indian agents of Pakistan’s western borders and blamed India’s RAW for funding the Baloch tribes in Balochistan. Many senior Pakistani military officials noted that the aim was to “de-nuclearise”, “de-radicalise” and de-Islamise” Pakistan. To achieve this purpose, they had joined hands. The difference between the two is: “The Americans act out of ‘stupidity’, as its actions have been counterproductive to its interests. Indians, on the other hand, have promoted their interests ‘cunningly’. Knowing exactly what they are doing.”
Published in The Express Tribune, November 26th, 2020.