Pakistan & the USA

Pakistan’s foreign policy has shifted with the rise and fall of each successive government in the country’s history. The US-Pak alliance surfaces as a predominant and re-emerging theme. From Jinnah to Ayub, to Zia and Musharraf, to the present PPP regime, the United States has grown increasingly involved in Pakistan, and has shaped not only how the international community views Pakistan, but also how the Pakistani state defines itself.

This relationship has been described as an “international political version of bipolar disorder”. (Hagerty, 2004) This thought paper will attempt to explain why the US has played such a large role in the development and growth of the Pakistani state, and the nature of what is often referred to as a “master-servant” alliance.

Today, a stable and democratic Pakistan is considered fundamental to U.S. foreign policy interests. U.S. concerns regarding Pakistan can be categorized as 1) regional and global terrorism, 2) Afghan stability 3) democratization and human rights protection, 4) the Kashmir dispute/ Pakistan-India tensions, and 5) economic development. How have these interests played out in the last 63 years? I will lightly touch on each of these points while outlining major shifts in the political alignment with the United States.

It started in 1948, when Pakistan initially had an independent foreign policy, approaching the United States, Soviet Union and China with friendly intentions. Liaquat Ali Khan’s visit to the former in 1949, and subsequent pro-West inclinations signaled Pakistan had chosen a side. At the time of the 1955 Baghdad Pact, Pakistan was viewed as one of the US’s closest allies in its goal of containing the Soviet Union by having a line of strong states along the USSR‘s southwestern frontier.  The US also operated U-2 intelligence flights over the USSR from bases in Pakistan. Throughout Ayub Khan’s era, Pakistan’s decision to align itself with the US in the Cold War led to a healthy relationship between the two countries, equaling $3 billion in economic development grants and loans. (Ahmed, 1998)

I view Pakistan’s initial alignment with the US as based mainly on its insecurity as a nation. Security problems with India and Afghanistan acted as catalysts to the search for allies. The early 1950s brought an economic crisis where the price of Pakistan’s main exports of jute and cotton dropped, adversely affecting foreign trade. The US came to the rescue with a gift of wheat and saved the day. Also, Pakistan’s attempt to involve the UN and Commonwealth in the Kashmir issue proved futile, and it was clear that only the strength of external parties would give Pakistan the leeway necessary to confront India. (Thornton, 2004)

The US’s decision to cut off aid during the 1965 war with India led to a sense of betrayal amongst Pakistanis. For the first time, it was realized that this friendship “was not based on mutual interest but on the interest of Washington alone”. (Burki, 2007)

Pakistan began focusing on nuclear weapons development in January 1972 under the leadership of Prime Minister Z. A. Bhutto; this caused a degree of alarm in the US government. It was in response to this that Pakistan was cut off from US aid in accordance with the Symington Amendment in April 1979, which stated that economic assistance be terminated to any country that imported uranium enrichment technology. (Pakistani Nuclear Weapons, 1997)

Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, while initially shunned by American officials as an anti-democracy dictatorship, was soon pivoted into a position of paramount importance, as Pakistan became America’s front-line ally in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Pakistan provided airspace rights, military bases and intelligence services, and was rewarded with over $1 billion in economic assistance, debt re-scheduling programs with the IMF, World Bank & Asian Development Bank, as well as a removal of the remaining nuclear and pro-democracy sanctions. (Hagerty, 2004) Whereas at first his military regime was seen as an obstacle to advancement in developing countries, Zia was now welcomed in the West, presented as “a champion of the free world”. (Burki, 2007)

The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan resulted in a complete loss of US interest in Pakistan. All of a sudden, we were no longer important. We had served our purpose, and thus capital flows declined. Nawaz Sharif’s 1998 decision to test nuclear devices led to the imposition of Western sanctions. Musharraf’s consequent coup and the return of military power was once again shunned. No longer was the military a “champion”, and Bill Clinton even refused to shake Musharraf’s hand in public. (Burki, 2007)

In accordance with the now-regular fluctuations in America’s disposition towards the country, Pakistan was once again called to duty after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. This time, it was the carrot-and-stick approach. The US threatened it would “bomb Pakistan back to the Stone Age” if we did not comply. (Burki, 2007) Immediately Pakistan abandoned its support of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, becoming an active member of the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the War on Terror. For its shifting loyalties, Pakistan was handsomely compensated in the form of economic/military assistance, and reduction of its ever-growing debt burden. To this day, Pakistan continues to officially support the War.

The India-Pakistan-Kashmir dispute has festered for over 55 years and has now come to include the issue of Islamic insurgency. The US has chosen to maintain a relatively neutral policy in this regard, even though both sides have been vying for support. America’s objective is to avoid war in the region. The American government is not, and has never been prepared to definitively support Pakistan’s claim to Kashmir and involves itself only when it its own goal is threatened.

Time and again, we’ve seen, as a nation, that the US is a fickle friend. American foreign policy is guided by the notion “if you aren’t with us, you’re against us”. Though some may argue that Pakistan has benefitted in economic terms from its relationship with the US, deeper analysis reveals that it has paid a heavy price. The enhancement of sectarian violence, militant Islamization, and terrorist activity are by-products of the Afghan war. Some may even blame the splintering of the country in 1971 on the West-heavy economic development, and the shunning of the East Pakistanis as potential communists encouraged during Ayub’s regime. Numerous examples can be cited. The question we need to ask ourselves now is what will we do the next time the US loses interest, or if it chooses India as a more reliable strategic partner?