US-Pakistan Relations: Preventing a Second Divorce

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Ties between the United States and Pakistan over the past quarter century have alternated between close partnership and divorce. Adversity has pulled our two countries together, but when common threats recede, divergent national interests pull us apart. The US$3 billion, five-year assistance package announced by Presidents George W. Bush and Pervez Musharraf in June is meant to break this cycle and to extend the partnership forged after September 11th. But the promises both leaders have made to secure this package can easily unravel, leading to an even more painful divorce.

To try to prevent history from repeating itself, it’s worth recalling how common efforts to evict the Soviet Union from Afghanistan were followed by a decade-long freeze in relations. In 1981, another Pakistani military strongman, General Zia-ul Haq, signed a six-year, US$3.2 billion deal with the Reagan administration. That agreement, like the recent one, was equally divided between economic and military assistance. Unlike Musharraf, Zia received forty F-16s. In today’s dollars, the Zia-Reagan deal would be worth in excess of US$6 billion. In 1986, Reagan and Zia subsequently negotiated another deal worth US$4 billion, almost sixty percent of which was for economic assistance. The economic help went a lot further back then, when Pakistan’s foreign debt was US$10 billion. Today, Pakistan owes more than three times this amount.

In making life miserable for Soviet forces in Afghanistan, the US and Pakistan understood that they were doing themselves, as well as each other, a favor. The Soviet presence constituted a grave threat to Pakistan’s well being, regional stability, and to US national security. The same calculations apply in dealing with the remnants of Al Qaeda.

During the 1980s, Washington understood that Islamabad was working to develop nuclear weapons. To balance the need to expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan with the need to hold the line against proliferation, the Reagan administration colluded with Congress to pass an amendment that Washington would pull the plug on aid if Pakistan’s nuclear program passed crucial “red lines”. This warning was reinforced time and again during the first Bush administration. President George W. Bush and the Congress will again lay down markers conditioning US support to Pakistan’s performance on terrorism, proliferation, and democracy.

While the war to expel the Soviet Union progressed, India and Pakistan became enmeshed in a series of nuclear-tinged crises, during which time Pakistan’s nuclear preparations were accelerated. The red lines drawn by Washington were crossed, redrawn, and crossed again. Pakistan’s leaders felt that the nuclear option was too important to be held hostage to other interests and that Washington needed Islamabad too much to cut ties. In 1990, after the Soviet Union was expelled and after another tense standoff with India, President George H.W. Bush stopped aid and imposed sanctions.

Pakistan’s external relations are fuelled by a sense of victimization. In domestic politics, it became an article of faith that Pakistan was jilted by the United States after doing Washington’s bidding. Bilateral relations suffered badly for the next decade, during which time Pakistan’s military and intelligence services nurtured the Taliban. The events of 9/11 forced a severance of these ties, while presenting a new opportunity to jettison sanctions and mend fences.

Musharraf has declared repeatedly that Pakistan will remain a staunch ally in the war against terrorism. Once shunned after deposing a popularly elected Prime Minister, he has become a distinguished visitor at Camp David.

But for a long-term relationship to grow out of the post-9/11 scenario, promises made will have to be kept. The United States is no longer pushing for a roll back of Pakistan’s nuclear option. The new red line drawn by the Bush administration relates to transfers of nuclear technology and missiles. Musharraf insists that nothing is happening on this front, while denying previous assistance to North Korea.

More trouble with the United States – as well as a clash with India – could be prompted by militant groups with bases in Azad Kashmir and links to the security and intelligence services. In the face of considerable skepticism, Musharraf denies that support for infiltration across the Kashmir divide is happening. A third danger zone is Afghanistan, where Pakistan is trying to regain lost ground, resulting in friction with the government of President Hamid Karzai. Musharraf insists that relations with Afghanistan are excellent.

The future of US-Pakistan relations, not to mention Pakistan’s domestic and external relations, depends greatly on how Pakistan’s leaders define national security. In the past, the national interest has been equated with nuclear and missile transfers, and by the use of proxies to shape the future of Kashmir and Afghanistan. Have these policies advanced Pakistan’s domestic security and foreign policy?

Like General Zia before him, President Musharraf might believe that Pakistan’s national interest requires shading or denying the truth. He would not be the first Pakistani leader to believe that Washington will forgive much to maintain the benefits of military cooperation. Nor would he be the first to be surprised by faulty assumptions.

In the future, any one or a combination of these three issues could bend US ties to the breaking point. The shift could be quite sudden, sparked by a catastrophic act of terrorism, tumultuous regional developments, or the discovery of another illicit nuclear transaction.

US-Pakistan relations will remain steady only as long as our national interests remain in alignment. Pakistan’s leaders have every right to pursue policies that place relations with the United States at risk. To do so, however, increases the likelihood of a second divorce. Alternatively, if Pakistan’s leaders could begin to view national security in a different light, and to jettison policies that have injured Pakistan in the past, Washington needs to respond by providing far more help than President Bush has pledged.


This essay originally appeared in the August 8, 2003 issue of The Friday Times (Lahore, Pakistan).

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