Few countries in the world have had a more tumultuous relationship than the U.S. and Pakistan. Even though Pakistan and the U.S. have been allies for the last 60 years, their relationship has been riddled with myriad fluctuations. Although it’s a relationship based on mutual need, it’s been mired with fairly high levels of mutual suspicion. The U.S. continues to need Pakistan to serve as a “frontline state” in its “Global War on Terror” in Afghanistan. On the other hand, Pakistan is dependent on the U.S. for financial and military support. The U.S.-Pakistan relationship and its success are vital because a stable, thriving, and democratic Pakistan is pertinent not only for the security and stability of South Asia, but also the rest of the world, especially the United States.

The U.S. regards Pakistan as the foremost ally in its battle against terrorism, but at the same time it views Pakistan with a distrustful eye. In fact, Bruce Riedel, a leading figure behind the shaping the Af-Pak policy, characterized Pakistan as the most dangerous country in the world. He further added that “all of the nightmares of the twenty-first century come together in Pakistan: nuclear proliferation, drug smuggling, military dictatorship, and above all, international terrorism.”[1]

Pakistan and the U.S. have always had an uneasy relationship.  But things seem to have taken a turn for the worse ever since the NAVY SEALS raid that killed Osama Bin Laden in Abbotabad in May 2011. The unilateral Abbotabad strike by America, without taking Pakistani Government and Intelligence into confidence, embarrassed the Pakistani leadership to no end. It raised questions not only on Pakistan’s sovereignty, but also on its credibility, capability and intentions worldwide.

This climactic development calls for a review of the U.S. Pakistan relationship.

A brief backdrop

The U.S. engagement with Pakistan has been fluctuating and bordering on being fickle. The indispensability of Pakistan for the U.S. has been directly proportional to the latter’s security calculations and threat prognosis. The Cold War witnessed the blossoming of the U.S.’s ties with Pakistan manifested in the form of CENTO and SEATO. Pakistan’s mortal enemy India, with its non-alignment policy, was reason enough for Pakistan to promptly ally with the U.S. The U.S. proved its commitment by tilting towards Pakistan in the 1971 war, but could not prevent the dismemberment of Pakistan. The Soviet Union’s Afghanistan sojourn propelled Pakistan to the forefront of the U.S.’s containment agenda, and there amidst the Soviet Union’s hopeless attempt at expanding its influence was born with the U.S.-Pakistan-Saudi assistance the jihadist phenomena. The decade long ‘jihad’ against the Godless Communists in the eighties was important for another near irreversible development that of the Pakistani-Islamic bomb and the U.S.’s blind eye towards it. Both the creation of the Jihadists and the Pakistani bomb were to have disastrous consequences for the Americans and for a better part of the world.

The 1990’s

The U.S. interests in Pakistan diminished significantly when it went on a ‘holiday from history’, probably inadvertently leaving the recently formed Jihadists to breed and the Pakistani nuclear bomb program to mature. Pakistan’s station as a frontline state in America’s risk analysis dipped, and the U.S., which had so far been feigning innocence about Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear program, slammed the Pressler, Glenn, and Symmington amendments sanctions on it much to the chagrin of Pakistan. The 1998 nuclear tests, the Kargil war, and the Musharaff coup led to further disarray in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Clinton’s five-day visit to India and five-hour one to Pakistan took the already plummeting ties to their nadir, especially as any overture to Pakistan’s enemy number one was treated with the harshest scrutiny and deemed possibly as betrayal by Islamabad.

2001 and beyond

The U.S. hiatus from close ties with Pakistan was rudely shattered with the terrorist attacks of   September 11 2001. As the U.S. went into its longest war, Pakistan revised its role as the frontline and indispensable albeit temporary ally of the U.S., this time in the “war on terrorism”. It served as the conduit for supplies and safe passage of the U.S. and later NATO troops to Afghanistan, and allowed a U.S. presence on its Durand Line and its sovereign space, thereby accepting that parts of its territory were beyond effective control of Islamabad. Pakistan’s commitment to the war on terrorism was never openly questioned by the U.S. as over 20 billion dollars of aid poured into Pakistan in the past decade, although doubts of its competence arose time and again with little tangible contribution from Pakistan in dismantling, disrupting and destroying terrorism.

Frustration over Pakistan’s inability to deliver on the anti-terrorism front led the U.S. to attach conditions to the aid that it doled out to Pakistan. Growing U.S.-India ties possibly rankled Pakistan. India’s economic appeal, the possibility of it being propped up as a counter to an assertive China and its democratic success made it a ‘natural ally’ of the U.S. As India continued to grow economically, the U.S’s calculations probably showed rationality in forging closer and deeper ties with India, with whom historically the ties have been remote and for periods even bordered on antagonism and open confrontations. For Pakistan, this development probably implied a grave sin committed by the U.S. The Indo-U.S. nuclear deal concluded in 2008 doubtless sealed the relationship between the U.S. and India while Pakistan was left in the cold by its former ally.

The relations were perturbed under President Obama, ever since the Kerry-Lugar bill was passed in 2009, which put riders on the U.S. aid to Pakistan. The relations were further incensed with Obama’s insistence on nuclear non-proliferation and the pressures put on illegitimate nuclear powers like Pakistan to come into the folds of comprehensive test ban treaty and fissile materials cut-off treaty. Then again, President Obama’s visit to India and growing relations between them (November 2010) and his criticism of Pakistan in the Indian Parliament further exasperated the situation of unease and discomfort.

2011 saw the worst of this relationship, beginning with the storm over Raymond Davis, the CIA agent who was arrested (and later released on U.S. insistence and compensation) for killing two Pakistani citizens in late January. In May, U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden in a raid in Abbotabad which was barely a few kilometers away from Pakistan’s military academy. The raid, carried out without Pakistan’s knowledge, severely mortified its military and intelligence agencies. The Pakistani government retaliated by expelling 100 U.S. military trainers, it terminated counterinsurgency operations and restricted intelligence sharing with the U.S. and also insisted on an end to the drone attacks. On the other hand, many debates ensued in the U.S. congress to cut aid to Pakistan for following ‘two-faced policies’ towards terrorist outfits.

The detention of Dr. Fai in July 2011 (with established links to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI) only added to the piling problems between the two countries.  Pakistan of late, has also demanded that the U.S. signs a memorandum of understanding with Pakistan specifying and defining U.S. rules of engagement inside Pakistan. The U.S., on the other hand, has refused to sign a binding document on such conditions of engagement. This issue might propel up more trouble for this already troubled relationship in the near future.

U.S. frustration and Pakistan a hedging

The U.S.’s frustration with Pakistan range from the latter’s inability to post results in the war on terrorism to its growing camaraderie with China. China has been seen to be flexing its muscles both on land and at sea. In Pakistan, it is reported to be helping build hydroelectric projects in the disputed region of Kashmir and is known to be building nuclear reactors in Pakistan in direct violation of the nuclear suppliers’ group regulations to which China is a party. The ISI is said to have had a continuing relationship with Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani network that might have played a role   in the Mumbai attacks of 2008. These duplicitous links incense the U.S., which has been banking on Pakistan to be the bulwark against terror instead of being in tacit compliance with them.

Is Pakistan hedging its bets by rearing close ties with its ‘all weather friend’ and the Haqqani network as it braces for the U.S. to depart in 2014? Are these efforts akin to the wild thrashing about of a drowning man? Pakistan has a host of internal problems from its fear of political fragmentation (fear of an Indian hand as the memories of 1971 must still remain fresh), its economic pressures, fear of a navy SEAL redux (this time to bereave it of its nuclear weapons), fears of another havoc-wrecking flood, incremental social pressures, having to answer for the incompetence of its law and order machinery at countering terrorist attacks on its own people, and so on.

Indispensable Alliance?

Despite the tensed relationship between the two, the U.S. and Pakistan remain indispensable to each other.  The U.S. needs Pakistan to destroy, dismantle and defeat the evil forces of terrorism and stabilize and secure South Asia.  The point, often made, is that U.S. needs Pakistan much more than Pakistan needs the U.S. That statement might be true to an extent but Pakistan remains equally in need of the U.S., because Pakistan’s contrivance is limited by its acute dependence on the U.S. in economic and military sphere. Bridging this trust deficit remains the most important goal for the U.S. and Pakistani leadership, as a fruitful relationship between the two is important for world peace and security.

To engage or not?

There are recent debates on engagement levels of America in Pakistan after the latter’s poor show in capturing Osama bin Laden despite being under the nose of its military academy. Some are furiously suggesting the scaling down of support and dependence on Pakistan as the trust deficit reached enormous proportions. Others, however, are apprehensive about withdrawing too abruptly, citing Pakistan’s manifold concerns and problems, including terrorist hubs that, left alone, may not wither on the vine if the U.S. does not assist in their demise. Pakistan requires development which needs to translate into socio-economic and political freedoms for the local population. Civilian institutions in the form of educational infrastructure and healthcare institutions are urgently required. The recent beheading of al Qaeda has brought some reprieve from the otherwise seemingly futile war on terror. The Arab Spring has the ability to rekindle hope in the local populace in Pakistan of the possibility of change other than that based on anti-American Jihad and Islamic fundamentalism. America should infuse with greater energy and immediacy life into construction of civilian institutions in Pakistan to prove that they are committed to their allies’ needs instead of washing their hands off a war-torn land and departing in a hurry, leaving behind a predicament with possible nuclear ramifications for Pakistan, India, and the world.

Bad Press

At the same time, America needs to address the issue of ever-growing anti-Americanism in Pakistan that emanates largely from a perception of callous and uncaring American policies towards Pakistan. Poll after poll (e.g., Gallup, Pew) have reconfirmed and reiterated that most Pakistanis see America in a very negative light; in fact, it would not be an exaggeration, if one calls the Pakistani public as the most anti-American in the world today. America, to improve relations with Pakistan has to lessen its over-reliance on hard power and make genuine attempts to engage with the people in Pakistan, and aid development and help Pakistan to come out of its long-drawn internal crisis.

Hopeful Conclusion

Even though the relations between the United States and Pakistan might be at their lowest ebb right now, they are not doomed. Pakistan and the U.S. are crucial to each other, and thus engagement between them will continue to take place. Thus Pakistan and the U.S. cannot choose to ignore each other, owing to their self and mutual interests and geo-political and economic considerations. The U.S.-Pakistan relationship might continue with its bickering and irritants, but it will not necessarily break down, as they both realize that it is in their interests to remain allied, even if reluctantly.

America needs to show that it genuinely wishes to help Pakistan in diminishing all its problems by building civilian institutions, improving educational and health facilities and increasing employment facilities for the unemployed instead of merely using it as a corridor to avenge the 9/11 attacks, mindless to the battering Pakistan has taken in this process. To a war-ravaged society like Pakistan with innumerable social-economic-political-environmental challenges, the aid from the U.S. has to be tangible. This alone will win the hearts and minds of the people; the point is in doing and not in empty rhetoric.


[1] Bruce Riedel, “Pakistan and Terror: The Eye of the Storm,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 618, 31, July 2008.