By Ishtiaq Ahmed
The United States and Pakistan have been allies since the 1950s, but there has always been some ambiguity over the values and interests that underpin their relationship.
Taking a longer-term view, the relationship has proved the most effective means for the U.S. to realise its primary objective of defeating its arch rival, the former Soviet Union. The opportunity for this arose when, in December 1979, the Red Army marched into Afghanistan in support of the Afghan Communists. Pakistan became the frontline state in a “jihad” financed mainly by a U.S.-Saudi alliance.
For Pakistan, the alliance with the U.S. provided it with the economic and military aid that it needed badly, primarily to offset the perceived threat from India. However, the U.S.-Pakistan equation underwent many ups and downs, especially after Islamabad developed a rapport with Beijing. And relations soured quickly once the Afghan jihad was over and U.S. concerns about Pakistan’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapon capability deepened. The 9/11 terrorist attacks once again changed the equation, with Pakistan becoming a key member in the alliance against the “war on terror”.
This time round, however, the trust between the two allies was even less substantive. While the Americans considered Pakistan’s cooperation imperative to strike and knock out the Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban who were hiding in Pakistan, for the Pakistani military leaders it was yet another opportunity to acquire American economic and military aid.
From the outset, the U.S. was unable to persuade Pakistan to go after, in a determined and effective way, the forces it believed were responsible for continued terrorism against the U.S.-NATO forces in Afghanistan: that included, besides key Al Qaeda leaders, the Taliban leadership, the Haqqani group and the forces around Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Consequently, the U.S. has been carrying out drone attacks on suspected militants hiding in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Such missile attacks often also killed innocent civilians; something that greatly angered the Pakistanis. They are also a clear violation of Pakistani space and territory. The U.S., however, justifies such actions as legitimate in a war against those threatening its vital interests and security.
In recent days and weeks, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship seems to have reached almost the point of no return. If one were to choose a date to mark that critical stage in U.S.-Pakistan relations, it would be November 26, 2011, when U.S.-NATO forces fired on a Pakistani check post on the Afghan border, killing 24 Pakistani military personnel. It inflamed Pakistani public opinion even more.
With an elected government in power that feels compelled to assert its democratic legitimacy and a Parliament vocal on foreign policy concerns, the popular opposition to U.S. drone attacks is now much greater than before. Pakistan thus retaliated by imposing a ban on the movement of supplies to U.S.-NATO forces. Such resolve seems to be the product especially of cumulative anger and frustration in the aftermath of the January 2011 incident where U.S. Special Agent Raymond Davis shot dead two Pakistani agents who were trailing him in Lahore. It peaked with the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy Seals on May 2, 2011, in the Pakistani garrison town of Abottabad. It not only demonstrated in a rude way the overwhelming U.S. military might, but also exposed the incompetence of the Pakistani military and intelligence services.
It was in such a charged atmosphere that President Asif Ali Zardari attended the NATO summit in Chicago in May end, where he received a cold shoulder from both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Things turned from bad to worse when U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta severely criticised Pakistan during his recent visit to Delhi, and then, while in Kabul, remarked that U.S. patience with Pakistan was running out. The mood in Islamabad turned even more defiant. Thus, on June 8, the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Defence and Defence Production, Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed of the PML-Q, strongly criticised Panetta. Speaking to the media after his speech in the Senate, Syed said, “Losing patience with Pakistan and blaming Pakistan for the U.S. failure in Afghanistan was a reflection of imperial arrogance as well as failure to accept responsibility for Washington’s own mistakes.”
He asserted that since 9/11, the U.S. had spent over $3 trillion in wars against Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan in which an estimated 225,000 people had been killed and almost eight million displaced, according to figures provided by an American university study. He further observed, “It is, therefore, not surprising that the Muslim world has lost patience with the U.S. due to its policies based on military might destabilising the entire region.”
He also took up Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s protest against U.S.-NATO bombings in Afghanistan which, on June 7, claimed the lives of 17 civilians and led to the death of 18 civilians. He welcomed a statement made by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in which the latter condemned U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan as a blatant violation of international law and called for an inquiry into this killing campaign. He deplored that, instead of thanking Pakistan for its contributions and sacrifices, especially of its armed forces and people, the U.S. was resorting to hostile remarks and threats. A US team that had been in Pakistan for several days talking to Pakistani officials to persuade them to open the transport supply routes failed in its objective and left on June 11.
So, where does all this lead to? Generally relations between states cultivated over a long time of time survive governments and can tide over bad patches as well. After a period of disturbance and upheaval they tend to reach an equilibrium. This is possible because the linkages and interconnections forged over time between state representatives of both sides generate social capital that can help mend relations. A complete severance of such ties, however, cannot be ruled out in case one of them or both develop mutually hostile interests and enter new alliances.
It is premature to say if such a level of mutual repulsion now exists in the U.S.-Pakistan equation. The U.S. has still not disabled the networks that have been menacing it in Afghanistan and which, after December 2014, can come to dominate the Af-Pak region. Pakistan’s tattering economy and general alienation in the world make its need for economic aid ever more acute. These two factors may ultimately help defuse the current standoff. However, it will take some time and considerable effort on both sides to restore it to a modicum of normality on which they can reconsider and redefine their interests in relation to each other.
(The writer is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)