Pakistan-US Relations: A Rocky Marriage?

Making sense of Pakistan-US relations.

The drums of war can be heard distinctly in the Pakistani media. The outcry against the United States has increased, and the mantra that relations with Washington have undermined Pakistani sovereignty is often repeated. The debate has moved on – after the Salala attack – to how best to exert leverage on Washington.

Many observers were surprised by General Musharraf’s decision to drop the Taliban and join the War on Terror, although this wasn’t really surprising given the Pakistani Army’s historical association with Washington. Furthermore, Pakistan’s economy was groaning under embargos and sanctions – the former for detonating a nuclear device, the latter for the military coup – and was in crisis. The Pentagon fired forth a series of ultimatums, making unilateral demands for bases, over-flight rights, intelligence and the cessation of support for the Taliban; and Musharraf surrendered, with the intention of making Pakistan indispensible in the War on Terror. This outflanked India’s attempts to include Pakistan in the Axis of Evil and resulted in the release of a cornucopia of aid and debt relief which reinvigorated the economy.

The War on Terror’s simplistic separation of the world into ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ is highly problematic and is also a clumsy tool. Rather than pursuing Osama bin Laden by means of a criminal investigation, the military campaign in Afghanistan, later extended to Iraq, radicalised many Muslims and is creating a clash of civilizations. The West is losing the battle for hearts and minds, not only due to events in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also due to the civilian casualties from drone strikes in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). What this has meant in Pakistan is that even though public opinion swung against the Taliban post-2009 with the takeover of Swat, Pakistanis still do not believe it is their war. The pro-Taliban elements in the media, the Army and Islamist groups all portray the conflict as America’s war, which will subside when they leave the country.

There is also tension between strategies adopted by the US and Pakistan in the region. Washington wants to leave a stable pro-US regime in Kabul that will prevent the return of international terrorism and provide a fig leaf for mission success. The Americans are prepared to negotiate with the Taliban on their terms, and this has upset both Kabul and Islamabad who have their own designs. Pakistan sees the US as an unreliable ally that once left the region abruptly, and is liable to do so again. Thus, support of the Haqqani and the Quetta Shura is seen as an asset that will lead to a pro-Pakistani government in Kabul. The Kayani doctrine envisages the Taliban being incorporated into the Afghan Army, which will then be trained by Pakistan. The Pakistanis also want to negotiate, but on terms favourable to them, and would be willing to destabilise talks that exclude them. Ironically, this strategy is delaying US departure from the region, which, in the event, would see a dramatic fall in the presence of US troops. You would have thought Kayani would have done everything in his power to get the Pentagon to leave as early as possible.

Despite these strategic antagonisms, the Pakistani establishment, in particular the military, cooperate closely with the Pentagon. For the last ten years, the Army has been denying that there are any US troops in Pakistan, only to recently evict them wholesale from the Shamsi airbase, but allows US Special Forces to continue their activities in the Tarbela Ghazi base. Likewise, the attitude to the use of drones has been duplicitous: public condemnation of their use accompanied by privately providing intelligence for the operations, declaring satisfaction with their efficacy and demanding the transfer of such technology. Furthermore, US contractors were embedded within Pakistani forces when they entered Swat and Bajur, and the embedding of US Special Forces in future actions against the Taliban was also considered.

How then can the downward spiral in relations be explained? While the Army had complete control of security assets, Afghan and India policy, and the region of Baluchistan, the civilian authorities had an upper hand in relations with Washington. The Raymond Davis affair was not the tipping point as suggested by some commentators; the process had begun earlier with the Kerry Lugar Bill, which Kayani objected to, and even informed journalists that the clauses in the bill relating to the financial aid that was not diverted towards the military were an assault against national sovereignty. The Army’s concern was that this would significantly alter the balance of power between the armed forces and the civil authorities. From this point onwards a campaign against the US was initiated, to wrestle control of US-Pakistan policy away from the civilian administration, so the Army could have a free hand in deciding how to spend the money. This crisis was brought to a head with the killing of Osama bin Laden–a great embarrassment to the Army, exposing its inadequacies and incompetence. However, rather than taking responsibility, it passed the buck on to the civilian administration. With the Salala attack by ISAF forces, the Army milked the tragedy for what it was worth, declaring that it was a deliberate attack and thus whipped up hysteria against the United States.

The Gilani administration’s attempt to deflect public anger involved the creation of a Senate Committee to review relations with Washington, shut down the Afghan transit trade route and expel US personnel from the Shamsi air base.  The PPP administration has been backed into a corner, and US relations – originally formulated by Musharraf – have become a political hot potato. While the regime would like to discreetly normalise relations with the US, it has to be careful that it doesn’t become an electoral liability that can be exploited by allies of the Army, the Islamist parties and Imran Khan. The Army is trying to wrestle control of US policy from the government and is willing to promote alternative candidates who will do the job for them. They have thus generated a frenzy against Washington – their concern is that the Kerry-Lugar Bill will reshape the political landscape in favour of civilian regimes and has to be stopped.


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