U.S.-Pakistan Relations: Duplicity, Betrayal, or National Interest?

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Arms Control Wonk

U.S.-Pakistan Relations: Duplicity, Betrayal, or National Interest?

Quote of the week:

“I heard the president [Reagan] ask Zia how he would handle the fact that they would be violating their agreement [to ‘prevent within its territory the training, equipping, financing and recruiting of mercenaries from whatever origin for the purpose of hostile activities’ against Afghanistan]. Zia replied that they would ‘just lie about it. We’ve been denying our activities there for eight years.’ Then, the president recounted, Zia told him that ‘Muslims have the right to lie in a good cause.’”
—George Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph

In the hard-edged world of international relations, the pursuit of one’s national interests is called Realpolitik. In U.S.-Pakistan relations, it’s called duplicity and betrayal. Pakistan’s decision makers continue to seek leverage for favorable (or to avoid unfavorable) outcomes in Afghanistan and to maintain ties with anti-India extremist groups that cost one penny for every dollar required for Indian countermeasures. These policies have been deeply injurious to Pakistan, but carrots and sticks won’t change them if Rawalpindi remains convinced that they are essential.

What’s most galling to one U.S. administration after the next is that Pakistani officials deny what they are so obviously doing – and hence the charge of duplicity. Yes, this is duplicity. But for duplicity to succeed for so long, Washington must be willingly gullible. U.S. national security calculations have led one administration after the next to continue working with Pakistan on important common interests, despite being repeatedly stiffed on militant groups active in Afghanistan and India.

Washington got something in return for its military assistance to Pakistan, in addition to its grief. American officials and Members of Congress can be outraged that they overpaid, and still more outraged that Pakistan’s assets in an endless war have killed U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and civilians in Mumbai. Inevitably, the Congress has begun to cut Pakistan’s military assistance. More is in the offing. But as long as U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan and are resupplied through Pakistan, there are limits to downsizing.

The diminishment of U.S. military assistance is widely viewed in Pakistan as a betrayal – part and parcel of Washington’s decision to switch horses on the subcontinent. Realpolitik bites back. Pakistanis understand that what they can offer the United States pales in comparison to what New Delhi can. And yet, Pakistanis viscerally believe they deserve better for helping the United States to force the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Pakistan greatly benefited from this collaboration, but in the retelling of this tale, its national sacrifices came at the behest of Washington.

The biggest U.S. betrayal in Pakistani narratives was the imposition of the Pressler Amendment in 1990, bringing down a raft of sanctions soon after the Soviet decision to withdraw. When the United States needed Pakistan’s help – or so this narrative goes – the George H.W. Bush Administration looked the other way about Pakistan’s nuclear program. When Pakistan was no longer useful to the United States, Bush invoked the Pressler Amendment.

Rabia Akhtar, a Pakistani scholar, has debunked this narrative. The truth of matter is that the language of the Pressler Amendment was purposely drawn so as to help rather than harm Pakistan by allowing the Executive Branch’s waivers. Capitol Hill was, however, balking at providing military and economic assistance to Pakistan because of its nuclear weapon-related programs. Thus, continuing assistance to Pakistan and continuing to work together in Afghanistan required two artful compromises.

The first was between the Reagan Administration and Zia. No one in the Reagan Administration took Zia’s denials of a nuclear-weapon program seriously because there was compelling evidence to the contrary. Thus, promises were sought and given. Zia promised not to “embarrass” the Reagan Administration. Pakistan was believed to possess all but one of the key elements of a nuclear bomb at this time. The missing ingredient was highly enriched uranium. It was commonly understood by Zia and the Reagan Administration that Pakistan would not “embarrass” Washington by enriching the uranium in its possession to weapons grade.

A second compromise was needed on Capitol Hill to continue the covert Afghan campaign while looking the other way from Pakistan’s nuclear activities. This is where the Pressler Amendment and its tortured language came into play: assistance to Pakistan could not be provided if the executive branch could notcertify that Pakistan was not in a possession of a nuclear weapon. As contortions of the English language go, it’s hard to beat the three negatives embodied in the Pressler Amendment. But these three negatives served the intended purpose of the drafters. As long as Pakistan refrained from enriching uranium to weapons grade, President Bush the Elder could technically avoid imposing the Pressler Amendment.

This invites the question of why the George H.W. Bush Administration finally brought the hammer of the Pressler Amendment down on Pakistan in 1990. Was this a betrayal of Pakistan by the United States after succeeding in Afghanistan, as most Pakistanis think? My investigations are incomplete on this matter, but they point to a very different reason for invoking sanctions. There was a crisis with India in 1990 – a crisis that prompted Pakistan’s leaders to raise enrichment to weapons grade. I suspect that Pakistan’s own actions during the 1990 crisis removed the last fig leaf preventing the Pressler Amendment from being invoked.

I regret to say that the blinders that often accompany arguments between Americans and Pakistanis over “betrayal” and “duplicity” have spilled over into debates among the community of South Asia experts in the United States. Chris Fair has come to the conclusion that Moeed Yusuf of the U.S. Institute of Peace is a “proxy” for the Government of Pakistan because his analysis is cognizant of, and sometimes sympathetic to – when he is not criticizing – Pakistan. Shall we also label experts whose analyses are sympathetic to Indian perspectives as proxies for the Government of India?

At the risk of enflaming Chris further, I am not going to be silent when she impugns the integrity and work of a valued colleague. If that makes me a proxy for Pakistan as well, it will come as a surprise to those in the region who view my work as terribly biased and downright anti-Pakistan.

Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on June 23, 2017.