Decoding the ever-evolving relationship of US and Pakistan — friends today, foes tomorrow?

US and Pakistan have been through the entire spectrum of relationship stages: from moments of cooperation and conflicts to periods swinging between indifference, intimacy, and outright hostility.
Published March 5, 2024

Soon after the results started pouring in following the Feb 8 general elections in Pakistan, several members of the US Congress, as well as the US State Department, expressed concern over alleged interference in the polls, with the former even calling on President Joe Biden not to recognise the incoming government until a transparent investigation into the allegations.

During a press briefing, White House spokesperson John Kirby emphasised the US administration’s vigilant observation of the Feb 8 elections in Pakistan, making his apprehensions about “intimidation and voter suppression” clear.

While it may appear that they are expressing valid concern, why is the US so deeply invested in the elections in Pakistan? And does this actually mean anything, particularly when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has brushed off the US statements by saying that the elections are an “internal sovereign affair”.

The answer to these questions lies in the history of the US-Pak relations.

To put it simply, the US and Pakistan have been through the entire spectrum of relationship stages — from moments of cooperation to periods swinging between indifference and outright hostility. This relationship has become entangled in domestic politics as much as it has in foreign policy. As a result, it has brought out the best and worst in the systems of both countries alike.

Significance of politics in shaping public policy

In the grand theatre of governance, where policies form scripts and politicians the directors, every decision becomes a gripping performance with high stakes and dramatic twists.

Policies, by their very nature, emerge as compromises with objectives that include but aren’t limited to the national interest. While the national interest often takes precedence, it is crucial to recognise that in the discourse surrounding any policy, the paramount consideration for the ruling establishment is how they can advance their personal political agenda.

This trend is particularly prevalent in advanced democracies, where electoral dynamics shape public policy. In such countries, politics have a profound impact on the policymaking process due to the influence of public opinion, facilitated by the 24/7 commercial TV, radio talk shows, the internet, and social media. Political activists, advocacy groups, lobbies, and special interest groups, including the influential military-industrial complex, contribute to this influence.

However, in weaker democracies, especially those lacking legitimacy, policy formulation is often dominated by the political interests of the ruling establishment. This results in policies that are convenient to implement, irrespective of whether they are beneficial or counterproductive. Within this spectrum, diverse combinations of policies and politics emerge, contingent upon the specific characteristics of each political system.

A perpetual gap tends to exist between policy decisions and public opinions, prompting leaders to strategically explain policies in a manner that appeals to public sentiment. This is often achieved through selective presentation of facts, disingenuous arguments, confusing the rhetoric, or tailoring different messages for different constituencies.

Governments, regardless of their political systems, wish to garner public approval for their actions and frame policies in the most politically advantageous manner. Aligning policy with politics poses a formidable challenge as public perceptions tend to be emotionally charged, especially in matters as sensitive as war.

Wars exact immense human and financial tolls, stir nationalism, and engage various stakeholders. In the context of war, governments face a daunting dilemma — either adhering to public opinion, potentially undermining strategic goals, or shaping policies to match public sentiments, risking long-term credibility.

The post-World War II history of America’s military engagements has shown a consistent trend — initiation of wars fuelled by public pressure, followed by difficulty in pulling out of them, especially from the failing ones as the government was afraid of political fallout.

Prime examples of this dilemma are the prolonged Vietnam War and the Afghanistan War. Exploring how these wars have influenced America’s relationships, especially with countries like Pakistan, is crucial for understanding their broader impact.

A relationship built on paradoxes and contradictions

Let’s zoom into the dynamics of the US-Pakistan relationship. The two countries have shared a complex bond, swaying between close-knit relations, at times even bearing the characteristics of the closest of allies and tense moments where Pakistan finds itself on the receiving end of sanctions.

At times, US leaders have showered praise on Pakistan, hailing it as a crucial ally, yet there have been instances of Washington casting aspersions on Islamabad. This seesawing of sentiments becomes even more puzzling when we reflect on how, historically, this relationship has served as a cornerstone for advancing crucial national interests of both nations and it holds the potential to continue doing so in the future.

The issue lies in the fact that the benefits derived from the relationship have come at great costs for both parties involved. There is also a substantial disparity between the policies guiding the relationship and the public’s perceptions of it. This gap, exacerbated by unusual fluctuations in their relationship, stems partly from the absence of a strategic consensus between the US and Pakistan and partly from a lack of permanence of US interests in South Asia.

This discrepancy has given rise to widespread misperceptions, rendering the relationship multifaceted and challenging for both sides to garner public support.

It’s safe to say that this bilateral relationship has been far from ordinary. Pakistan’s role in Washington’s eyes has been anything but steady. Its importance has waxed and waned, depending on the evolving interests of the US in the region, resulting in a dynamic where Pakistan either teams up with or stands against the US.

This nuanced relationship was particularly visible during the Afghanistan War when the two nations functioned as allies without a genuine sense of camaraderie, enemies without deep-seated animosity, and partners without a foundation of trust.

This still leaves us questioning how, despite these inherent contradictions, the US engaged in an extraordinary aid relationship with Pakistan, even when it seemingly lacked economic or strategic interests. The explanation extends beyond mere foreign policy considerations; there was a confluence of factors at play.

Pakistan’s assigned roles held significance not only from a strategic standpoint but also had significant political implications, particularly during events like the 1980s Afghan war, the post-9/11 conflict in Afghanistan, and the broader war on terrorism. Domestic politics weighs heavily on wars in any country. This holds especially true for the US.

Due to its crucial role as a partner in various wars, Pakistan found itself navigating an unusually extensive relationship with successive US administrations. This relationship was primarily steered by the White House, with support from the Pentagon and the CIA, focusing on military intelligence cooperation. Complicating matters further, military governments held power in Pakistan during this period, leading to a bypassing of the regular policymaking process.

However, the challenge of conveying this unique relationship to the American people who saw no grounds for such strong ties between the two countries persisted. In the initial stages, this challenge was addressed within the context of Cold War rhetoric, where Washington, driven by both domestic considerations and foreign policy needs, exaggerated the value of alliances and allies.

The relationship was oversold domestically, inflating Pakistan’s importance as an ally.

Regrettably, Pakistan misinterpreted the praise from American leaders, failing to recognise that it often constituted political statements thrown in the air rather than official policy. But in Pakistan, people took these words at face value. This led to the mistaken belief that the provision and volume of aid directly correlated with the strength of this relationship.

In response, Pakistan, for its domestic objectives, perpetuated this inflated image of being America’s ally — a move driven by the need to address local reservations about the relationship. Within Pakistan, segments of public opinion, political institutions, and the strategic community viewed this association as constraining the country’s foreign policy options.

Concerns were raised that the US connection had strengthened the military, elevating its political influence and impeding Pakistan’s path toward democratisation.

From strategic partners to strategic rivals

Due to the mutual exaggeration in both, the rationale and the quality of the US-Pakistan relationship, as well as the perceptions held by Pakistanis were distorted, leading to a disconnect between reality and public sentiment when the US distanced itself from Pakistan in 1965. Despite public disappointment, the official stance from Pakistan expressed a lingering favourability towards Washington, rooted in a dependency that had developed over time.

This dependency on the US was shaped by a combination of policy and politics. From a policy perspective, Pakistan sought political and diplomatic support from the US, even in a less-than-close relationship.

The need to turn to a major power for assistance, especially due to its influence in International Financial Institutions (IFIs), and the importance of the US as a trading partner and potential mediator in the India-Pakistan crisis further solidified this dependency. During the first engagement (1954-1965), the US indeed helped the state’s survival and stabilisation, raising its potential for progress. But that was the last time America helped Pakistan.

The dynamics of US-Pakistan ties from the 1980s onward became predominantly conflict-oriented, centering around the Afghan wars and the war against terrorism. Unfortunately, these wars were characterised by flawed strategies, and in some cases, were deemed unnecessary, causing considerable harm to Pakistan.

Despite the adverse consequences, Pakistan found itself compelled to maintain the relationship due to the aforementioned policy considerations.

Since emerging as a superpower, the US has often engaged in wars with impulsive entrances and exits, resulting in repercussions for both itself and its allies. These conflicts were triggered by inflated confidence in its military prowess and influenced by domestic political interest groups, as elucidated in Jack Snyder’s work, “Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition.”

Moreover, Stephen Walt, a renowned American academic and author, noted that some leaders initiate wars to preserve their power or leave a lasting legacy, while various interest groups advocate for war to bolster their influence, increase profits, or further specific causes. Walt’s assertion gains credence through reports suggesting that Karl Rove, President George W. Bush’s election strategist, advised the President that the Iraq War would benefit his chances of reelection.

Given the Americans’ own historical experience, going to war comes naturally to them. They do not consider any moral qualms or contemplate how wise it is to launch a war, almost as if an American war is an inherent extension of their national ethos — a default solution to global conflicts.

Therefore, when faced with setbacks, the discourse rarely revolves around questioning the fundamental merit of the war; rather, the focus shifts to minimising losses and making swift exits. This pattern creates a cycle where Americans find themselves pulling in and out of wars without a clear understanding of the rationale behind initiating them in first place.

Pakistan had become a victim of the worst feature of the US foreign policy — its propensity to go to war. But America too suffered from the weakening relations as it was dominated by elements in Pakistan that had strategic ambitions that clashed with US interests. And whose need to stay in power or dominate it made it sensitive to public opinion and limited the cooperation it gave to Washington.

This added an ironic twist to the dynamics of the bilateral relationship as it was America’s support for the military that enabled it to gain political primacy in Pakistan.

Were past military rules in Pakistan orchestrated by Washington?

It is no secret that the strength of US-Pakistan relations has been most pronounced during periods of military rule, with substantial economic and military aid. At the same time, this was perceived as undermining democratic institutions. However, contrary to popular belief, attributing direct American influence to prolonged military interventions requires a more nuanced understanding of the circumstances.

Pakistanis believe that the US has preferred a certain kind of government in Pakistan, specifically a military regime, to safeguard its security and strategic interests. The idea is that since the lifespan of such regimes aligns with their relationship with the US, Washington must have played a role in both — bringing them to power and removing them when they were no longer needed.

Contrary to this narrative, the reality lies in the fact that the US collaborated more effectively with the military due to historical factors that coincide with America’s interests in Pakistan. From the outset, the nature of the relationship made the military a central player. Apart from the strategic importance of the army and the country’s geopolitical location, Pakistan’s value to Washington was limited. And that was not all.

Washington’s need for Pakistan was also sporadic, impermanent, and coincidentally; whenever the need for Pakistan arose, the military was already in power in some form or another.

Are Pakistan’s puppet strings in America’s hand?

Simply put, Washington did not orchestrate the rise of military governments to power, a fact obvious in the cases of Zia and Musharraf. Even in the era of Ayub Khan, while Washington may have tacitly accepted martial law or potentially played a role in its initiation, it did not orchestrate it.

The relationship between Pakistan and Washington is not a manifestation of direct control by the US but rather stems from Pakistan’s dependence on it. Whether under civilian or military rule, both were dependent on Washington, serving as an external pillar to the elite-led civil-military oligarchy in Pakistan. This model benefited the ruling establishment, albeit with limitations for Pakistan.

Dismissing the myth that nothing moves in Pakistan without America’s approval, it’s important to note that Washington doesn’t tell Pakistan which policies to implement or whom to appoint. The relationship between a dependent elite-led system and an external benefactor has naturally led to policies that favour both — the ruling government and the benefactor, often at the expense of the country’s interests.

In cases where Pakistan’s fundamental interests clashed with US interests, Islamabad, to the credit of both civilian and military leadership, defended its policies by standing up to Washington. The nuclear programme and relations with China are examples of such instances. America had to make peace with it. And its relationship with Pakistan continued.

While Washington doesn’t explicitly dictate Pakistan’s policies, it also refrains from dictating key appointments, such as those of the foreign minister or the finance minister. The ruling government in Pakistan though, ensures that those who are appointed are favoured by the US and formulate policies that are not in contention with American interests. This understanding remains unspoken and implicit.

The fundamental reality is that through the years, both the US and Pakistan found themselves mutually dependent. They each had reasons to cooperate and the power to resist the other’s influence. The crucial difference lies in Pakistan being consistently in need of the relationship, compared to America’s temporary need for it.

There also existed a lack of agreement between the two countries regarding the terms of their interaction, given the global focus of Washington’s interests was in contrast with Pakistan’s regional concerns. It’s worth noting that the US lacked a coherent South Asia policy until the late 90s, and when it finally emerged, the primary emphasis was on the US-India relationship.

Consequently, each interaction between the US and Pakistan seemed to function as a standalone event, highlighting the cynicism of the relationship.

Anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories

The political landscape in Pakistan has undergone significant transformations due to globalisation, increased connectivity, educational advancements, civil society emergence, cultural intermingling, the internet and media revolution, and economic opportunities.

These factors have contributed to heightened political consciousness among Pakistanis and other developing nations, spurring nationalism and aspirations to achieve true democracy. Both the domestic system of governance and the international order led by the US are facing challenges, with Washington’s support for the ruling government exacerbating its waning popularity.

The leadership finds itself caught between an assertive, nationalistic population and a self-absorbed America. Washington often jeopardises this delicate balance, alienating the people in the process. The consequences are twofold, resulting in increased disapprobation for both the leadership and the US.

The rising anti-American sentiment is reshaping relations with the US and influencing domestic politics in Pakistan. Governments leverage their American connections for financial and diplomatic support, while the opposition exploits anti-Americanism to delegitimise those in power.

Notable instances include the campaign against Musharraf, which used anti-Americanism to stir public sentiment against him for his pro-Washington policies and Imran Khan’s campaign against the sitting governments before he rose to power.

Was Washington involved in the removal of Imran Khan from power? This raises important questions about the dynamics behind his ousting. Were the actions driven by internal forces within Pakistan, or did external factors, particularly from Washington, play a role? Throughout history, Pakistan’s political dynamics have operated relatively independently, with domestic influences being the primary catalyst for changes in government.

It appears that the US has shifted away from engaging in coup activities. While the US continues to pursue its interests in other countries, the idea of covertly manipulating and overthrowing governments is now questionable.

In cases like Pakistan, where the US has important but not critical interests, it seeks to exert influence through established diplomatic channels, often using coercive language. The US may exploit a regime’s vulnerabilities without necessarily orchestrating a change or issuing explicit threats of change.

It is believed that the relationship between the army and the former prime minister had deteriorated, particularly concerning the appointment of the director-general of the ISI. The primary reason was the potential disruption of the civil-military balance of power by then prime minister Imran Khan.

The security establishment was reluctant to give up control over critical foreign policy matters traditionally within its domain. The immediate concern was the potential strain on relations with the US and other key allies like Saudi Arabia, which could adversely affect institutional and national interests.

While both the US and Saudi Arabia reportedly expressed dissatisfaction with Imran Khan’s policies, the military — Washington’s main ally — was also discontent. However, this begs the question: was there a need to seek American involvement to address the situation? If the US shared similar concerns, would it not have simply observed the situation unfold?

By early 2022, it became evident that those with reasons to remove Imran Khan could do so without external assistance. The game of political manoeuvring, where politicians often allowed external influences, had been played successfully for decades. In this scenario, the interests of the US and the Pakistani establishment aligned, rendering Washington’s direct intervention unnecessary.

Bottom line

Criticising the US necessitates a parallel scrutiny of its Pakistani counterparts, notably figures like Zia and Musharraf. It’s imperative to acknowledge that Washington did not take anything from Pakistan that the latter did not give of its own accord.

While Pakistani leaders may have failed to serve the people over the years, they have fought battles to culminate a system that protects their interests. The idea of ‘Pakistan’ under their rule, is a product owned and operated by them, not beholden to foreign influences.

While maintaining ties with the US is crucial, there is a need to readjust the terms of engagement that is contingent upon efforts from both Pakistan and the US. Islamabad needs to recognise that a weak and dependent Pakistan undermines its negotiating position. Simultaneously, Washington must grasp that the people of Pakistan should be able to feel the benefits of the relationship for it to garner sustained public support in the country.

Ultimately, both parties must realise that the traditional model wherein the leaders reap benefits at the expense of the population is no longer tenable.