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US-Pak Relations Through the Decades

By 14 June 2012 No Comment

Photo: Courtesy AFP

About two-and-a-half decades before Pakistan and the United States became embroiled in the Afghan ‘jihad,’ Saadat Hasan Manto wrote in one of his satirical Letters to Uncle Sam: “My admiration and respect for you are going up at about the same rate as your progress towards a decision to grant military aid to Pakistan…regardless of India and the fuss it is making, you must sign a military pact with Pakistan because you are seriously concerned about the stability of the world’s largest Islamic state since our mullah is the best antidote to Russian communism. Once military aid starts flowing, the first people you should arm are these mullahs…” (Translated from Urdu by Khalid Hasan).

By 1954, when this letter was written, Pakistan was well on its way to becoming tangled up in American military contingency plans for Asia and the Middle East. It hadn’t been easy to start with, though. Initial overtures from Karachi, which began within months of Pakistan’s formation, excited precious little interest in Washington despite being formulated in terms designed to grab the attention of cold warriors in the Truman administration.

An initial request for a USD two billion credit incorporated a plea for the US to effectively bankroll the new nation’s armed forces, offering in return the prospect of an Islamic bulwark against communism. In effect, the infant nation was offering its services as a client state well before it was out of its nappies.

In documents cited by M.S. Venkataramani in his seminal work The American Role in Pakistan, 1947-58, there is even evidence of efforts to promote the view that Pakistan was geographically well-placed to protect India against Soviet expansionism. Fears of ‘Hindu imperialism’ also surfaced occasionally, but the focus was decidedly on establishing Pakistan’s anti-communist credentials. When a mutual defence assistance pact was eventually concluded in 1954, the US made it reasonably clear that it could not be invoked in the event of hostilities between India and Pakistan, even if the former was the aggressor.

A decade or so later, Pakistan nonetheless felt spurned when the outbreak of the 1965 war led to a suspension of US arms sales to both countries. It had always felt its allegiance should entail a preferred-nation status relative to non-aligned India. But, although Washington wasn’t exactly enamoured of Jawaharlal Nehru’s independent-mindedness and neutrality, it had little intention of gratuitously alienating the largest country in South Asia. The Nixon administration’s notorious ‘tilt towards Pakistan’ in 1971 came only after India had concluded a defence treaty with the Soviet Union.

Back in the 1950s, it wasn’t simply a case of Pakistan’s persistence paying off. Having finally realised that both of the young country’s wings were indeed strategically situated – one on the verge of the Middle East and proximate to the USSR, the other on the edge of Southeast Asia – some US officials began to look upon West Pakistan as an ideal launching pad, should the need arise, for military strikes against the Soviet Union as well as for ‘defending’ the Middle East.

In those days, another global conflict was widely considered likely and some even thought it inevitable. The success of the Chinese communists under Mao Zedong also increased Pakistan’s value – even as the leadership in Karachi was disappointed by America’s failure to come to the aid of its ally Chiang Kai-shek.

That may seem somewhat ironic given the close ties that eventually developed between Pakistan and China, but Peking was closely allied with Moscow in those days, while all of the men who held positions of power in Karachi during the first post-independence decade – from Mohammed Ali Jinnah to Iskander Mirza – entertained hardly any doubts about which side they were on. Liaquat Ali Khan left little room for conjecture on this score when he leveraged an invitation from Moscow to obtain one from Washington.

The US was also well acquainted with the army officer who became Pakistan’s first military dictator. By the time of Ayub Khan’s coup in 1958, Pakistan was a member of both the Baghdad Pact (which was re-christened as the Central Treaty Organisation, or CENTO, after power changed hands in Iraq) and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO). Far from being unduly alarmed by the institution of military rule, the US went on to salute the self-ordained field marshal as a regional model – an Asian de Gaulle.

It was somewhat less sure about the young man Ayub promoted to the post of foreign minister in 1963. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto seemed a bit too fond of the concept of bilateralism, and was keen to exploit the opportunity that arose when China fell out with India. He played a key role, too, in instigating the 1965 war that occasioned the suspension of US military supplies. That the ceasefire in that conflict was formalised under Soviet auspices in Tashkent serves as a reminder that Pakistan was at least tentatively toying with the notion of life outside the American camp.

Washington’s suspicions of Bhutto were reinforced after he emerged at the helm of what remained of Pakistan following the 1971 war and, shortly thereafter, sought to don a leadership mantle on a broader stage encompassing much of the Muslim World. He established a rapport in particular with those Arab leaders whom America trusted least. His decision to go nuclear is often seen as the last straw, not least in view of Henry Kissinger’s dire warning.

For much of the decade that followed, though, the US turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions.

The extent to which the US may have been complicit in the 1977 coup that brought General Zia-ul-Haq to power has never been conclusively established, but it initially went along with the broad international trend of treating the new dictator as something of a pariah. But that attitude changed within months of Bhutto’s execution, after the Soviet Union launched its misbegotten military intervention in Afghanistan.

Although, to start with, Zia felt obliged to grovel for attention even more abjectly than the founding fathers, his prayers were answered rather more quickly. The US was inevitably interested in making the Afghan experience as unpleasant as possible for its primary international rival, and Pakistan’s long border with Afghanistan made it the ideal conduit. Zia was keen to oblige, and not just for ideological reasons – he was also desperate to acquire a degree of legitimacy.

So Uncle Sam finally accepted Manto’s advice and began to arm the mullahs. If Jimmy Carter was a trifle diffident, Ronald Reagan had few qualms about embracing Zia – even though the latter’s domestic misrule was occasionally something of an embarrassment. The CIA, having launched its largest covert operation since the Vietnam War, climbed into bed with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

When the US eventually lost interest in Afghanistan following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the flow of cash and weapons through Pakistan – some of which were being siphoned off – dried up, some on the Pakistani side complained of having been treated like a used condom. But the US, as always, was pursuing only its own interests. Sure, it blew its top when the ghosts of those years resurfaced to bite it on the backside. But it took years – and the advent of the Obama administration – before there was any official acknowledgement that American sponsorship of the first Afghan jihad may have had something to do with the United States’ latter-day predicament.

Simmering resentment among many of the Pakistani officers involved in that jihad has also been part of the post-2001 mix, but the military – substantially desecularised during the Zia years – has also been conflicted that the US effectively changed sides by unleashing its power against the ideological offspring of the jihadis it had once hailed as paragons of anti-communist virtue.

It is easy enough to accept General Pervez Musharraf’s claim that he had little choice in aligning himself with the US when the Bush administration asked him which side he was on in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist atrocities on American soil. Washington’s attitude was obviously governed by the new circumstances, but also informed by decades of rarely interrupted obsequiousness on Pakistan’s part.

Musharraf complied with US demands arguably to the best of his ability, but it seldom seemed good enough to the Americans; despite military purges, the impression that elements in the armed forces and the ISI were selective in their pursuit of militant Islamists never entirely dissipated – probably with good cause. The advent of Asif Ali Zardari was initially greeted with welcome surprise in Washington because he seemed willing to rush in where angels fear to tread – simultaneously, but perhaps not coincidentally, echoing the founding fathers’ request for a multi-billion-dollar package as a panacea for Pakistan.

He realised soon enough that, notwithstanding his constitutional status, the military hierarchy wasn’t at his beck and call. Meanwhile, the sharply increased frequency of drone attacks under the Obama administration, alongside other violations of Pakistani sovereignty – most notably the operation to kill Osama bin Laden – have put a few noses out of joint and reinforced anti-American sentiment among the public.

American curiosity over why the Abbottabad raid has perturbed Pakistanis more than the fact that bin Laden was able to live there for years is understandable, as is its consternation over the 33-year prison sentence awarded, on the charge of high treason, to Shakeel Afridi, the doctor who helped the CIA in its quest for the Al Qaeda chief. But then neither side has ever been able to put itself in the other’s shoes.

Over the past six decades, Pakistan has invariably been expected to follow orders – with rewards in cash or kind, and an occasional pat on the back. But let us not forget the Americans were, time and again, invited to take advantage of Pakistan. That they may have gone too far is a different matter. There was never any question of an equal relationship but one based on mutual respect might once have been feasible. A recalibration at some point in the future cannot be ruled out, but for the moment it seems an exceedingly distant prospect.

This article was originally published in the June issue under the headline “Friends in Need.”

Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.


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