Relations between the United States and Pakistan have soured considerably in 2018. A recurring exchange of flustered tweets by statesmen on both sides suggests that they may be ready to move on. However, it may be worthwhile taking a pause to consider what may be at stake. Disengagement and estrangement would not be new words in the U.S.- Pakistan lexicon. Far from it, however, both countries have seen better days and it is important to keep history and the present context in perspective.
U.S.-Pakistan relations may be traced all the way back to Pakistan’s inception. The U.S. was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with Pakistan. President Harry Truman was quick to extend a congratulatory note the day after independence in 1947. In the ensuing decades, the two forged their defense and diplomatic ties through various security arrangements. These included a Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement (1954) and cooperation in Cold War alliances such as the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) in the 1950s and 1960s. Pakistan’s support to the U.S. during the Cold War was distinctive, multi-faceted and enduring. Consider for example, the provision of a Pakistani Air Force (PAF) communications facility, Peshawar Air Station. Better known as PAF Camp Badaber, the site was leased to the U.S. from 1959 to 1969 to spy on the Soviets.
In the early 1970s, Pakistan served as the key intermediary between the U.S. and China, successfully facilitating a thaw in relations after more than twenty years of hostilities. At the time, the U.S. was seeking a rapprochement with China to undercut Communist alliances in Asia, isolate North Vietnam and undermine the Soviet Union. In July 1971, a secret trip to China was arranged by President Yahya Khan for Mr. Henry Kissinger, the U.S. National Security Adviser. Mr. Kissinger was flown to Beijing from Islamabad on a special Pakistan International Airlines plane. Subsequent visits by President Richard Nixon to meet with Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai led to the signing of the Shanghai Communiqué in 1972. This paved the way for the establishment of diplomatic relations with China in 1979 under the Carter Administration.
In a more overt proxy role during the Cold War, Pakistan served as the conduit for U.S. arms to support the Afghan Jihad from 1979 to 1989. During this period, Pakistan also provided training grounds for the mujahideen. Armed with U.S. Stinger Missiles, the mujahideen were instrumental in hastening the collapse of the Soviet Union, a key foreign policy objective of the U.S. Through many of these decades, U.S. military assistance to Pakistan formed an important element of the relationship, primarily in acknowledgement of services rendered by the latter.
In 2004, in recognition of Pakistan’s frontline role in the U.S. led war on terrorism, it was designated a Major Non-NATO Ally. Post 9/11, besides more than US $10 billion in reimbursements for services, Pakistan has received approximately US $20 billion in civilian and military assistance. During this period, Pakistan has ranked as one the top beneficiaries of U.S. largesse. Pakistani students have been amongst the largest recipients of the prestigious Fulbright Scholarships for higher education in the U.S. for over a decade. Between 2003 and 2017, prior to the recent suspension of U.S. $300 million in military aid to Pakistan, it had also been the largest recipient of U.S. International Military Training and Education (IMET) grants, a highly coveted program. There is absolutely no doubt that the demonstration of U.S. goodwill toward Pakistan has been extraordinary.
Yet despite the history of strategic alliances and robust cooperation, relations have occasionally been marred by deep mistrust and estrangement. Pakistan has been slapped with U.S. sanctions, first in 1979 under the Symington Amendments; and again in 1990 under the Pressler Amendment. As described by former U.S. Ambassador, Ryan Crocker, Pakistan went from being “the most allied of U.S. allies to our most sanctioned of U.S. adversaries.” It is as if Pakistan and the U.S. are on a perpetual roller coaster ride.
In the post 9/11 landscape, regional geopolitics have transformed, adding new complexities to the U.S.- Pakistan relationship. The U.S. remains engaged in war in Afghanistan. It has been its longest war to date. A popular view in the U.S. holds that Pakistan’s counter-terrorism cooperation has been duplicitous and has countered its military strategy. Pakistan is widely believed to provide safe haven to the Haqqani network, a one-time CIA asset, and other Afghan Taliban groups including the notorious Quetta Shura occupying prominent roles in the Afghan insurgency. While Pakistan officially denies an organized presence of these groups on its territory, it is not a far-fetched notion for at least three reasons. First, Pakistan’s ISI worked intimately with these actors when they fought against the Soviets during the Afghan jihad. Unlike the U.S., Pakistan could not disengage from Afghanistan when Soviet forces withdrew for it shared a fifteen hundred mile border with the neighboring state. When the Soviet Union collapsed so did the government in Afghanistan. To Pakistan’s detriment, it has borne the greatest brunt for their geographic proximity. The repercussions have been most evident in a protracted refugee crisis, the spillover of narcotics, arms, and terrorism. Afghanistan has since remained a text book case of state failure: having been without an effective central government for close to four decades; one that could not sustain itself without the support of international security forces; and whose writ arguably does not extend beyond the capital Kabul. In the aftermath of the Soviet-Afghan war, it is well known that Pakistan felt abandoned by the U.S. while Afghanistan remained in a state of disarray. A five-year civil war was ultimately followed by the formation of a government by the Taliban, the former Mujahideen.
Second, in post 9/11 Afghanistan, the U.S. has placed non-Pashtun groups at the helm of affairs, mostly Tajiks from the country’s north, who fought alongside the Soviets during the Afghan Jihad. They have historically been close to India due to its alignment with the former Soviet Union. This explains the logic why Pakistan would retain a degree of influence over the Afghan Taliban and use them as a hedge against its nuclear archrival’s influence in the country. India’s RAW has also relied on proxies in its strategic competition with Pakistan. A prime example is its support to the Mukti Bahini, the guerrilla resistance movement in former East Pakistan. More relevant to the current context, there are allegations of India’s support to the ongoing insurgency in Balochistan from Afghan soil. India’s leverage with the Afghan powers that be and growing security footprint exacerbate Pakistan’s perception of encirclement. This compounds the regional security dilemma. With the U.S. leaning towards India as one of its premier security partners, it should recognize that an effective regional strategy would be one where it meaningfully encourages India to engage with Pakistan on Kashmir. This core issue is one of the oldest unresolved conflicts in modern history. Its resolution has the potential to completely transform the regional security landscape including Pakistan’s strategic calculus in Afghanistan.
Finally, Pakistan likely believes that severing ties with the Afghan Taliban would undermine its ability to help negotiate inclusive political structures in Afghanistan. This is fundamental for stabilizing Afghanistan. Solving the conundrum requires a recognition of the deeply divided ethnic mosaic and underlying power struggles. A pragmatic focus on Afghan ethnic reconciliation is imperative. U.S. involvement in the Doha Dialogue and the Quadrilateral Coordination Group on Afghan Peace and Reconciliation along with the governments of Afghanistan, China, and Pakistan demonstrates that engaging with the Taliban is necessary. The Trump administration has signaled its clear intent to talk to the Taliban and is fully supportive of President Ashraf Ghani’s peace process. This is laudable. Stability in Afghanistan is in the common interest of both the U.S. and Pakistan, and the opportunity presents itself for them to work closely together toward this objective. The costs of the war have been immense for the region and the U.S. It is time to do things differently. Negotiations offer the best opportunity to influence the Taliban who have traditionally been reluctant to talk to the Afghan government. This is where Pakistan’s role is critical.
While the media is abuzz that the U.S. and Pakistan may soon be parting ways, if history is a guide, they can be reliable partners. The tensions simmering between them do, however, signal that the time is ripe to assess their common interests and carefully consider the costs of disengagement. It could lead to greater insecurity in the region and the formation of new alliances including China, Russia and Iran. While disengagement could be argued as a rational choice by strategists, it would likely jeopardize the national interests of both countries in an increasingly complex world.
Dr. Saira Yamin is a Professor at Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, Hawaii. The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of any organization or government.