The end of an affair?

The US-Pakistan alliance yet again seems to be under considerable strain. The tensions had begun with the US’ decision to use drones to attack specific terrorist organisations and individuals within Pakistan along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Despite periodic Pakistani protests the drone attacks continued to proceed apace. Matters worsened considerably after the successful US raid in Abbottabad that culminated in the killing of Osama bin Laden. Subsequently, Pakistan chose to limit on-going counter-terrorism cooperation to express its unhappiness with the US’ actions which, in its view, had compromised Pakistan’s sovereignty.
Within the past few weeks matters have worsened considerably. The US has unearthed and made available evidence that links Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI-D) to the Haqqani terrorist network’s attack on the US embassy in Kabul in mid-September. Pakistan’s foreign policy establishment, quite predictably, has vehemently denied any nexus between the ISI-D and the Haqqani network. More to the point, in an attempt to deflect this unwanted attention, they have argued that the US actually supported the Haqqani network during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Despite the heightening of these differences it is unclear if the relationship will collapse anytime soon. Pakistan remains far too dependent upon US assistance to terminate the relationship. It may well make overtures towards Saudi Arabia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), two of its most important allies, in an attempt to signal the US about its possible alternatives.
The US is also not about to walk away from Pakistan either. It remains acutely dependent on Pakistan to supply the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. While the US is seeking alternative supply routes it is unlikely that it will be able to find them anytime soon. Consequently, the current diplomatic minuet is likely to continue for some time to come.
The current impasse, however, is emblematic of the US-Pakistan alliance. The roots are historical and indeed go to its basis. From the outset, the alliance was one of convenience. As early as the 1950s, Pakistani policymakers very deftly inveigled the US to provide their country substantial amounts of military assistance. As is now well known, Pakistan ostensibly sought to forge this alliance because it was keen to play a key role in the US’ anti-Communist efforts. To that end, it made key areas of the country available to locate US surveillance and intelligence facilities. This relationship of convenience lasted for the better part of a decade. It became ruptured in the wake of the 1965 Indo-Pakistani conflict when the US imposed sanctions on arms transfers to both India and Pakistan.
Apart from a brief moment of cooperation in the early 1970s when Pakistan facilitated the US opening to the PRC, the relationship languished. It was revived, once again, in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Yet again, it was a relationship of convenience. A willingness to cooperate with the US enabled the Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship to see an entire raft of US sanctions lifted in one fell swoop. Furthermore, it benefited dramatically from substantial US arms transfers and significant amounts of financial assistance. Once again, as the Afghan war drew to a close, the US chose to bring the relationship to a close.
Gen. Zia-ul-Haq had described the relationship with the US as a “handshake not an embrace”.
However, when the nexus came to an end there was a peculiar sense of betrayal in Pakistan. Its elites argued that the US had chosen to walk away from Pakistan when its strategic imperatives in the region had been addressed.
After a hiatus of about a decade, which was marked with much mutual recrimination, the relationship was again renewed in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the US in September 2001. Yet again this was based upon questionable premises. The US wanted to use Pakistani territory mostly to dislodge the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and vanquish the Al Qaeda. Pakistan, under Gen. Pervez Musharraf, however, shared these goals, but only in part. Even before the advent of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq Pakistani policymakers had embarked upon a quest to establish “strategic depth” in Afghanistan to compensate for Pakistan’s geography. To that end they had sought to establish a pliant regime within the country. Gen. Musharraf, who shared a commitment to this goal, was not about to abandon his ties to the Taliban and other irregular and terrorist forces. Nor, for that matter, was he prepared to abandon the use of such actors to further the Kashmir cause.
This fundamental tension dogged the relationship since its renewal. The problem has now simply come to the fore as the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has become all but imminent. Sensing an opportunity to enhance its position within Afghanistan, the present military establishment has simply granted greater rein to its acolytes. The question that now confronts the US is how it can deal with this recalcitrant ally as it faces another crisis in its fraught relationship.

The writer is director of research at the Centre on American and Global Security at Indiana University, Bloomington

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