Does Pakistan really need Uncle Sam?

The relationship is necessary but dependency is not. Pakistan must be a party to the terms of engagement, but should not promise what it cannot deliver for fear of losing aid.
Published June 22, 2023

Writing about US-Pakistan relations is always like writing a piece of literary criticism of Shakespeare’s Hamlet — looking for new answers to old nagging questions, falling short and often ending up with new questions.

The challenging new question now is: Will Pakistan have to choose between the US and China in view of their intensifying rivalry?

Pakistan’s anxiety is a reflection of its dependent foreign policy that cannot afford to lose any major relationship, yet cannot find the right mix. Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar hinted as much in her remarks, as revealed in the Discord leaks reported by the Washington Post, that Pakistan can “no longer try to maintain a middle ground between China and the United States”. In a more recent statement, the Foreign Office spokesperson also said that Pakistan has not joined the “China block”. Navigating between the two relationships is not going to be an easy path.

So the question is, if Pakistan has the option to keep relations with both China and the US, how much should the share of each be? The answer can only be provided by a correct understanding of both Pak-China and Pak-US relationships, their relevance and their importance to Pakistan’s national interests.

A relationship lacking consensus

While there is largely a national consensus on the strategic nature of relations with China, the same is not true of US-Pakistan relations. The understanding of relations with the US is marked by long-held myths and misperceptions that have hindered a clear-eyed view. This article hopes to address some of these misconceptions.

For over six decades, US-Pakistan relations have served vital interests for the two countries but it has not been a ‘normal’ bilateral relationship. Its central irony is that substantial aid levels from time to time have not reflected an enduring and substantive relationship. Instead, it has fluctuated back and forth from close alliance to estrangement and antipathy.

The US and Pakistan have forged closer ties three times, each time prompted by Washington’s short-term need for Islamabad’s cooperation to serve its critical security and strategic interests, and Pakistan’s long-term need for US economic, diplomatic and political support. Their interests were served but only partially. Both benefited but also felt aggrieved. Here is why.

Because of the absence of any shared long-term interests, the two countries could not develop a strategic relationship. Such a relationship ran up against other interests of the two countries, causing contradictions in the bilateral relations and between their relations with other countries.

The fact that each time during the close US-Pakistan alliance, the government in Islamabad happened to be a military dictatorship created another set of problems in both countries. In Washington, Pakistan, already under scrutiny in the US Congress and media from pro-India forces, non-proliferation high priests and the pro-Israel lobby, was hit by democracy activists.

In Pakistan, the US connection strengthened the army and enhanced its political profile, hindering Pakistan’s democratisation and disaffecting the liberal/nationalist intelligentsia towards the US. The general public also did not wholeheartedly support the relationship due to US policies in the region and beyond such as the Vietnam war and Washington’s support for Israel and India. As for the strategic community, it thought the relationship limited Pakistan’s foreign policy choices.

Even though it did not enjoy mass support in the country, the relationship was overall beneficial to Pakistan in the first engagement from 1954 to 1965. A Mutual Defence Assistance Agreement with the US was signed in 1954. Pakistan also joined the Southeast Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and the Baghdad Pact (later known as CENTO) in 1954 and 1955 respectively. In 1959, Pakistan signed the Bilateral Agreement of Cooperation with the United States. The agreement allowed the US to set up military bases in Pakistan.

As a result, the country received substantial economic aid and security assistance. To its credit, the US strengthened Pakistan’s defence capabilities and potential for economic development that was of critical help in stabilising the new state and launching the platform for sustained economic progress.

During the 1960s, US assistance supported Pakistan’s food and energy security and development planning. Washington provided and mobilised finances for building civil works such as barrages, large dams and link canals under the Indus Waters Treaty. If it wasn’t for US assistance, Pakistan’s Green Revolution, which increased food production manifold, would have been unthinkable.

Ever since, several Faisalabad-based agricultural research centres have sustained the green revolution. Furthermore, the US assisted Pakistan in establishing its federal planning apparatus — the Planning Commission — which significantly contributed to Pakistan’s socio-economic development. Star institutions which owe their existence to American support include the Pakistan Forest Institute in Peshawar and the Institute of Business Administration in Karachi.

Myths surrounding the relationship

The first engagement from the mid 1950s-60s was the last time the US really helped the people of Pakistan. After that, the relationship was largely between the two ruling establishments in Washington and Islamabad who had stake in it for different reasons and purposes.

In the next two engagements — during the 1980s against the Soviets in Afghanistan and their post-9/11 alliance — the question for Washington was not what kind of relationship it should have with Pakistan but what kind of role it wanted it to play for a particular geopolitical or security need. More importantly, what it would take to make the regime do what the US wanted it to do. That is what determined aid levels, not what intrinsic importance Pakistan had or did not have.

Over the years, the gap that had existed between the public and government positions in each country began to widen, and as both endeavoured to strengthen their relationship to bridge the gap, it created serious myths and misperceptions.

Washington had oversold the relationship domestically, exaggerating Pakistan’s importance as an ally. President Richard Nixon called Pakistan the United States’ “most allied ally” and announced that relations with Pakistan were a cornerstone of US foreign policy. President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz eulogised Pakistan as a front-line state, praising President Ziaul Haq highly. President George W Bush cozied up to President Pervez Musharraf by saying he could do business with him.

The reason for successive US administrations to have praised Pakistan the way they did, and for having an extraordinary aid relationship with it where it saw no lasting economic or strategic interests, was that there was more than just a critical foreign policy issue at play for America.

The issue also had big importance in domestic politics like the two Afghan wars and the war on terrorism. Earlier in the 1950s, Pakistan also had an important symbolic position in the containment policy as an ally linking the US chain of alliances from Europe to the Middle East to Asia.

The irony was that America’s strategic interests were being advanced but through a transactional relationship. But Pakistanis missed the nuance. The ruling establishment, for its own domestic purposes, highlighted this inflated image of America as an ally. Washington was billed as an ally against India. It did so either because of ignorance of US foreign policy, wishful thinking, or by conveniently stretching the interpretation of various agreements and alliances to ‘sell’ the relationship to a reluctant public. In some ways, the leaderships in both Washington and Islamabad were facing the same dilemma.

From myths to misperceptions

All this created serious problems in knowing the truth about the relationship in both countries. The public was conflicted between their own reservations about the relationship and the inflated image painted by the governments. In the US, the political and military leaderships came to believe in their own propaganda and felt let down when they found Pakistan falling short of its exaggerated image as an ally.

Washington was not happy with Pakistan’s relations with China, the 1965 war, Islamabad’s nuclear programme, and Pakistan’s contribution to the failure of the Afghanistan war. And there were cries of betrayal.

They waited for the special need that had brought the two countries close to be fulfilled before putting Pakistan to sword. Pakistan’s conduct came under heavy scrutiny across the board especially in the media and the Congress. Sanctions were imposed. If you take away the peak relationship years — 1954-1965, 1979-1989, and 2001-2010 — what do you have in the remaining 35 of the 65 years of the relationship? Pakistan was under sanctions for 25.

There were equally strong charges of betrayal in Pakistan. In a willing suspension of disbelief, most Pakistanis, despite their own reservations about the relationship, had come to half believe the inflated alliance with the US as the natural default position.

They were then outraged when the US supported India in the 1962 Sino-India war, did not support Pakistan in the 1965 and 1971 wars, and imposed various sanctions. There was particular anger over US opposition to Pakistan’s nuclear programme showing Washington’s double standards. There was also a strong sense of victimhood as Pakistanis genuinely believed their help to the US had enormous importance, especially in the Afghanistan war of the 1980s and the war on terrorism. They felt that after 9/11, they not only gave help but also suffered horrifically from the consequences of the war in Afghanistan.

As myths about US-Pakistan relations began manifesting, they gave birth to public grievances and misperceptions about the US and Pakistan’s relationship with it: the US came, utilised Pakistan’s services and then walked away, leaving Pakistan to clean up after it. Pakistan was an ally but the US did not help Pakistan in the 1965 and 1971 wars showing its unreliability as an ally. Instead, it came to give ‘preferential’ treatment to India, showing America’s ‘infidelity’.

On the extreme end, there are perceptions such as: Incidents of instability in Pakistan are Washington’s hidden ‘agenda’ to destabilise Pakistan so as to take out its nuclear assets; Washington wants to punish Pakistan for being an ally of China; militant organisations are a creation of America’s Afghanistan war etc. And more recently, Washington helped overthrow Imran Khan and install an “imported” government in Pakistan.

Searching for the truth

Let us try to explore the truth as far as we can. While Uncle Sam has often treated Pakistan unfairly and even high-handedly, public anger against the US for not supporting Pakistan against India in the 1965 and 1971 wars is misplaced. The US, in fact, did not break any treaty commitments by not coming to Pakistan’s aid.

As for the perceptions that the US walked away when its needs were fulfilled and returned when it needed Pakistan again, making it an unreliability ally, are not quite true. One has to understand the US foreign policy, the changing importance of South Asia to Washington and where Pakistan fits in it.

As Richard Armitage, then-deputy secretary of state admitted in 2002 that Pakistan was never important to the United States in its own right. It was important, he said, because of third parties. The implication was that Pakistan had no permanent value for the US, and its importance for Washington derived from the importance of South Asia more broadly.

South Asia’s importance for Washington until the end of the Cold War was limited and variable. But not anymore. Both India and Pakistan are relevant to the US for different reasons. From its G20 presidency to India’s partnership in America’s Indo-Pacific strategy, “India is on a geopolitical centre stage. Its strategic value for the West is increasing”.

Key regional groupings such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are expanding their cooperation with India. So when Pakistani politicians including prime ministers urge Washington to treat India and Pakistan equally, it shows ignorance at several levels — ignorance of how much South Asia has changed, of the way it now relates to big powers, of Pakistan’s own place in the region and across the world. This is what happens when myths, misperceptions and dependency syndrome swirl around understanding of critical issues.

India and Pakistan’s relationships with the US in the emerging world order have different trajectories, resting on different rationales and roles. The US has not ‘gone over’ to India from Pakistan. It was always there.

America’s partners in Pakistan

One cannot criticise America without criticising America’s partners in Pakistan, especially Zia and Musharaf. Washington did not take anything from Pakistan that it did not give of its own accord. Pakistan may have lost more than it gained but it did gain, as did its ruling establishment.

America’s own gains were also mixed. The bad relationship was a product of Pakistan’s bankrupt, elitist organising idea, for which the US had become an external pillar on the one hand, and some of the worst flaws of the US foreign policy on the other.

The US flaws included the sense of exceptionalism that made it hard or unnecessary to understand the history and culture of other countries, reluctant imperialism, selective pursuit of a value based policy, weaponisation of economic power, interference in domestic affairs including attempts at regime change, and propensity to go to war to solve complex social and political issues, which could not be solved with military power.

The irony is that while it’s true that Pakistan did not hold enough importance to justify a sustained high profile relationship, it did not deserve the sanctions it got either. America’s foreign policy works in extremes. The lack of balance is a systemic flaw, not to mention, it is a superpower that knows the power it holds. Its interests are global, whereas the interests of its smaller partners are regional. And with so many crises going on, Washington has a short attention span for most issues with domestic politics. Its own priorities often take precedence over foreign policy issues — Biden recently had to cancel a trip to Australia amid a debt ceiling crisis at home.

The US foreign policy-making process has always been very complicated, involving complex inter-agency processes and reflecting institutional interests of the military, intelligence, bureaucratic ambitions, turf wars and careerism; but has now become politicised than ever.

Politics not just influences policy now, it invariably determines the policy, especially on issues of high public concern such as wars. The policy has been particularly bad on issues of importance to Pakistan such as the Afghanistan war. The Washington Post‘s Afghanistan Papers, the KPBS’ recent three part series on America’s 20-year war and the Taliban victory speak volumes of the policy failures.

Yes, the spillover of the Afghan war caused horrendous problems for Pakistan, but its own contribution, direct or indirect, to the US failure in Afghanistan cannot escape blame either. The spillover of the war, partly resulting from this failure, and partly inherent in the situation in Afghanistan and the border areas, that had been developing over decades, merged with Jihadist currents, both from within Pakistan and transnational, created havoc in Pakistan. The Afghanistan war was not solely responsible; it was a tributary to this confluence and a catalyst to an eruption waiting to happen once Zia Islamicised Pakistan’s identity and its strategic paradigm.

American interference?

Finally, did America interfere in Pakistan’s internal affairs? No doubt, Washington acts to gain and maintain influence in other countries where its vital interests are at stake but it is contestable if it is still in the business of secretly making or breaking governments.

Where its interests are not critical but still important, as in Pakistan, the US tries to influence and sometimes manipulate policies. But it does so by established diplomatic messaging, often in coercive language that comes naturally to Washington. It also exploits the vulnerability of a regime without having to change it or holding out written threats of change.

Washington came to play into the power imbalances and structural weakness of Pakistan’s elite-based system. Pakistan’s elite became addicted to the relationship. Dependency creates vulnerability and openness to exploitation. Thus came about a co-dependency that serviced faulty policies on both sides, setting each other up for blame for their own failures and enhancing the scope for contention in the relationship.

The fact is Pakistan has had serious problems relating to governance, social change and democratisation. We ourselves are primarily responsible for it. The US has not created these conditions but merely exploited them to its advantage. The reality is that political dynamics in Pakistan have nearly always functioned fairly autonomously, and the primary, though not always the sole, stimulus for the rise and fall of governments has been domestic, not external.

Problematic allies

The purpose of this article is not to make a pitch for US-Pakistan relations but to give the policy makers and especially the public at large a clear-eyed-view of the history of the relationship. The hope is that by debunking or clarifying some of the myths and misperceptions, it will help the public see the relationship for what it is — a partnership where both sides contributed to successes and failures.

The bottom line is if Pakistan decides to not have a relationship with the US, it should not be based on myths and misperceptions. If the decision is to have a relationship on the basis of national interest, then we have to accept a certain degree of abnormality in US behaviour and policies. America is what it is.

America is not going to change. We have to change our perceptions of the US and how we relate to it. It is not a vital relationship but does not mean it is not necessary. The US is Pakistan’s leading export destination for one. And that means a lot for a struggling economy. Even if we cannot earn America’s friendship, we should not incur its enmity.

And finally, Pakistan should try to scale down its expectations of the US and lower Washington’s expectations for Islamabad. The relationship is necessary but dependency is not. Pakistan must be a party to the terms of engagement. And for the fear of losing aid it should not promise what it cannot deliver. It is better to lose aid than credibility.

Header image: Representative image of Uncle Sam. — Accessed via Shutterstock