A symbiotic relationship
Published on May 3, 2006 in the Dawn
The debate focusing on US-Pakistan relations has been marked by great analysis but has
behind some troubling questions about our approach to the relationship. Pakistan.s ties with
the US continue to be filtered through our perceptions of India. These perceptions have
failed to break through our traditional assumptions of parity with our neighbour. But the
growing gap between Pakistan and India is obvious to the rest of the world that deals with
each country according to its own merits. This we regard as a great betrayal, which is how
we perceive the recent Bush visit to the region.
Over time, our criticism of the US has accumulated many new themes as an idiom of resentment
against our US-centric leadership and as an expression of nationalism under the impact of
the Iranian revolution and the rise of religious extremism. Post-9/11, it has merged with
the rising wave of anti-Americanism in the Islamic world.
Yet the dynamics of US-Pakistan relations and the discriminatory US approach to India and
Pakistan have been at the heart of our feelings towards America. A brief history will
explain the issues.
At the time of independence Pakistan was deeply conscious of the power disparity in the
subcontinent and looked for ways to redress it. The viability of the state was at stake
compelling Pakistan to look in the direction of the US, which in turn was trying to promote
a strategic consensus of non-communist Asian states to check the expanding lines of
Pakistan opted to become a close ally of the US as its assistance established a semblance of
balance of power in the region. The US co-opted Pakistan because of its inability to woo
India. Although the relationship did serve the critical interests of the two countries, from
time to time it reflected the absence of a long-term policy based on a larger conceptual
framework, a shared vision or continuity.
Both sides gave to it more than what they got. The United States strengthened Pakistan.s
defence capabilities and potential for economic development that gave critical help in
stabilising the emergent state. But in doing so it also helped encourage undemocratic
tendencies in Pakistan, as US patronage of the military caused the latter to raise its
national profile which came to dominate the country.s politics through a pro-western
alliance of conservative forces, including the Islamists. The US itself did not escape the
negative fallout which caused complications in its relationship with India and thwarted its
opposition to Pakistan.s nuclear programme . two important strategic objectives from its
perspective. The Pakistan-US alliance during the Afghan war prospered . though under the
darkening shadow of the forces that would later come to threaten them both.
No wonder the relationship has never enjoyed broad-based public support or endorsement of
the strategic community in the US except during the heady days of the Cold War. Afterwards
it continued to face one stumbling block after another because of Pakistan.s relations with
China, the issue of democracy and our nuclear programme. There was of course the theme that
never went away, that is Indo-Pakistan tensions and concerns about an arms race in the
Over the years, many in the US Congress have had serious reservations about Pakistan. So the
seeds for a de-hyphenated relationship go far back. Indeed the de-coupling of US relations
with India and Pakistan had begun way back in 1962 at the time of the Sino-Indian war, and
continued imperceptibly, working sometimes to India.s benefit, and sometimes to Pakistan.s.
It remained an underlying determinant of US policy in South Asia until former President Bill
Clinton brought it out into the open. So in essence the US has all along followed separate
tracks in its relations with India and Pakistan, responding to different needs and
While as a superpower it was easy for the US to weave in and out of Pakistan, the latter
became addicted to the relationship as it served more than our national interests. It served
the ends of our political leadership and the elite, civilian and military, could not be
weaned away from it. This dependency syndrome was fostered in part by the need to fall back
on help from a big power to occasionally bail out the country from the ill effects of bad
governance, and in part by fears stoked by America.s overwhelming power with which it often
trampled on Third World countries that did not do its bidding.
The myth that nothing moves in these countries without US approval lives on. So does the
corollary that everything wrong in these places is America.s fault, an impression instigated
by the leadership itself to divert dangerous currents of social discontent and political
opposition. So the relationship has undergone much distortion over the years.
While the US has often treated Pakistan unfairly, even in a highhanded manner, it must be
said that the public grudge against America for not supporting Pakistan against India in
1965 and 1971 is misplaced. A close scrutiny of US treaty obligations to Pakistan leave no
doubt that the historical US commitments were essentially in the context of a communist
threat to Pakistans security.
The 1959 agreement on bilateral cooperation clearly says that in case of aggression against
Pakistan, .the Government of the United States in accordance with the constitution of the US
will take such appropriate action including the use of armed forces as may be mutually
agreed upon and is envisaged in the joint resolution to promote peace and stability in the
Middle East. in order to assist the government of Pakistan at its request.
The joint resolution on the Middle East speaks of only one eventuality of the US coming to
the aid of a country under aggression, and that is in the event of communist aggression.
That was in the past but what about the present? President Musharraf has stimulated a debate
on reforms, and thanks to the economic policies and management of Prime Minister Shaukat
Aziz, Pakistan has registered an impressive growth rate. But credit should also go to the US
and its allies for lending such critical support to these efforts. Yet the US-Pakistan
engagement, and the military-dominated political dispensation, which feed on each other,
have increased the potential for both good and harm for Pakistan.
Partly because of this alliance and partly because of some global forces that are shaping
our history many powerful ideas that move men and define a nation.s life have come into play
in Pakistan. These pertain to religion, nationalism, democracy, ethnicity and regionalism,
and above all pressures for reform, modernisation and social consensus. The direction of
change, however, remains unclear.
Pakistan.s role in the war on terrorism, for instance, has aroused strong feelings in tribal
and feudal societies in smaller provinces stimulating regionalist tendencies. The war on
terrorism, being seen as an assault on Islam, has also raised the profile of the Islamists
complicating our debate about national priorities.
The two countries are conscious of this narrow focus on terrorism and are trying to make the
relationship broad based and long lasting. This was the objective of the recent dialogue
between the Pakistan foreign secretary and state department officials in Washington which
reportedly went well. Broadened cooperation with Pakistan is geared to meets its reform
requirements as well as the US objective of a stable and moderate Pakistan that seeks a
cooperative and tension-free relationship with India and Afghanistan to promote America.s
larger economic and strategic interests in the region.
As to the future, one can only speculate. My own view is that both Pakistan and the US are
heading for a period of transition that will have some repercussions for their relationship.
Both Bush and Musharraf will fade away. Pakistan.s internal dynamics are reaching a critical
stage because of the 2007 elections, while in the US the Republicans are likely to lose
their majority in the House in the 2006 mid-term elections and a Democrat will be making a
strong bid for the White House in 2008.
These changes, along with the outcome of the Iraq war and the Iran crisis, may turn out to
be watershed events in America affecting the war on terrorism and Washington.s approach to
Terrorism may in time be reduced to one of the regular threats that can be addressed with a
range of normal military, intelligence, and foreign policy options. Pakistan.s cooperation
in this war will still be needed but not so critically that the US may have to trump its
other important interests. US dependence on Musharraf may well decrease as the scaled-down
level of cooperation can equally be provided by a civilian leadership despite political
constraints. Indeed Musharraf may himself become less compliant to US demands in the war on
So the democratisation pressure by Washington will increase if the US feels that the present
hybrid system and Pakistan.s potential de-politicisation threatens its stability and
enhances the prospects of the Islamists. In any event, the US would not like to be
identified too closely with Musharraf.s personal ambitions.
On the other hand, if Washington feels that it is the present system and not full democracy
that ensures Pakistan.s stability and that Pakistan.s cooperation in the war on terrorism is
still needed it will not rock the boat. For now, the army remains America.s best bet. But
nobody knows what is going to happen in Pakistan in the future.
However, one thing is clear. The US cannot afford to walk away this time because its
policies towards Pakistan have to be integrated with critical US policy choices in the
region. India may offer the United States great economic and strategic opportunities, but it
is Pakistan.s internal dynamics and relationship with India that have been at the root of
challenges to US foreign policy in South Asia. The US will remain engaged though its
pressure on Pakistan to conform to American policies in the region will increase.
Will the US agree to cooperate with Pakistan in the field of civilian nuclear energy? No,
not now and even less so in future. Does this make the relationship any less valuable for
us? Not as long as it continues to serve some other important national interests of ours. In
a strange irony both Pakistan and US have historically been part of the problem and part of
the solution for each other and this paradigm is unlikely to change.