The US-Pakistan Roller Coaster Relationship

Earlier this year the Military Intelligence Directorate of the Pakistan army reportedly prepared a long-term analysis of Pakistan's relationship with the United States, charting its cyclical ups and down over the decades. It deduced that a downturn was expected in 2007, as the US prepared to ease out of its dominant role in Afghanistan. After that Pakistan would be left holding the bag yet again and having to cope with rising internal Talibanization and trouble on its Western frontier. This assessment may well have been behind General Pervez Musharraf's recent moves to clear out his moderate and judicial opponents in a self-inflicted coup against his own Supreme Court and heavily amended constitution. The assumption was that the United States would not react strongly; since it badly needed the Pakistan army to seal the border with Afghanistan and that the only alternative to Musharraf was the specter of Islamist radicals controlling Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

In selling this line, Musharraf was one in a long line of Pakistani strongmen and dictators, who milked the United States for military support and financial assistance to keep themselves in power; all in the name of preserving Pakistan's integrity. On his part, in buying this line, President George W. Bush and his team also were working from an old Cold War playbook. As always, the US found itself between the rock of support for a freedom agenda and the hard place of military support that only a military strongman could provide. It talked, as Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte did in the House Foreign Relations Committee on 7 November 2007, of supporting the "people of Pakistan" but came out on the side of the autocratic President of Pakistan whom Negroponte called an "indispensable" ally.

To the people of Pakistan, it is a case of déjà vu all over again. With minor adjustments, history appears to be repeating itself:

- An autocratic leader with liberal pretensions finds himself struggling to remain in power, but facing opposition from a host of unlikely partners; Islamists, so-called moderates, and even the judiciary.
- The US administration is allied with the military but US public opinion seems to be shifting against Pakistan

Way back in the 1950s, the US and Pakistan became close in the battle against the communist threat, or so Pakistan portrayed it to the Americans. Pakistani politicians and military leaders rather adroitly painted themselves as partners in the defense of the Middle East and against the communist threat worldwide, in sharp contrast to India's neutral and at times pro-Soviet stance.

As Pakistan's domestic political situation deteriorated, the then army chief General Ayub Khan began formulating a plan to reorient the state. He had in mind a leadership role for the military. The US went along, as Pakistan played the communist card to acquire arms and equipment and to expand the army. Under the cloak of this argument, Pakistan's army grew with US help to become a dominant player and coercive power on the national scene.

The US fully understood that Pakistan needed arms to defend itself against India and was not capable of fighting outside its borders against any future Soviet threat to the Middle East. Pakistan continued to believe that US aid could be used against India and so long as it paid lip service to the fight against communism, it would meet all the criteria for continued aid. The Pakistanis were unaware that President Eisenhower himself was raising doubts about the military relationship. Chairing a meeting of the National Security Council in January 1957,

The President observed that we had decided some time ago that we wanted Pakistan as a military ally. Obviously it had been proved costly to achieve this objective. In point of fact, we were doing practically nothing for Pakistan except in the form of military aid. The President said that this was perhaps the worst kind of a plan and decision [emphasis added] we could have made. It was a terrible error, but we now seem hopelessly involved in it.

But the pendulum was already swinging away from blind friendship toward a more pragmatic relationship on the part of the United States. This was captured succinctly in he new US ambassador James Langley's letter to William Rountree, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern, South Asian, and African Affairs near the end of 1957. Characterizing the situation in Pakistan as one in which "we have an unruly horse by the tail and are confronted by the dilemma of trying to tame it before we can let it go safely", he wondered if Pakistan had not "grown wilder of late." He sought a reappraisal of the situation, particularly in light of the deteriorating political and economic situation in Pakistan. Then, reverting to the military pact, he stated:


I fear that it would not be to difficult to make a rather convincing case that the present military program is based on a hoax, the hoax being that it is related to the Soviet threat.

The US saw then, as it does now, the army as the only institution that was relatively free of "provincial or group rivalries." In its view, the army was "well disciplined" and had a "high degree of morale and loyalty to their leaders and constitute the most stable element in Pakistan today [emphasis added]." Meanwhile the machinations within the political system continued to swirl and grow, as the military man-turned-bureaucrat-turned-President Iskander Mirza sought dictatorial powers, regardless of the parliamentary system that he had helped introduce and that had elected him as President.

When Mirza conveyed to the US ambassador in Pakistan that he was getting ready to impose martial law in 1958, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles responded by advising Langley to convey to Mirza that the US favored democratic government over authoritarian government. But added that "there may be exceptions which can be justified for limited periods [emphasis added]. That decision must be left entirely for Pakistan's leaders and people to decide....only as a last resort." In effect, the green light was given for Martial Law.

The US needed Pakistan on its side, regardless of what was good for Pakistan's internal political development. As a result, the US condoned or abetted Pakistan's slide into martial law and repeated cycles of military rule. It propped up General Ayub Khan and then deserted him in the1960s after his war with India. It supported his illegal successor General A.M. Yahya Khan's repression against East Pakistan, paying him back for Yahya's help with opening up the doors to China for Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon. But Yahya ended up losing a war to India and losing half his country, as East Pakistan became Bangladesh. Needing an ally against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in 1979, the US learned to live with and love the dictator General Zia ul Haq for a decade, but once the Soviets were defeated and General Boris Gromov's tanks rumbled across the Amu Darya in February 1989, the US packed its bags and left. Pakistan had to deal with the blowback of the ensuing Kalashnikov and drug culture.

Today the US is back in the region, this time to fight the local and foreign Al Qaeda terrorists that had used Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to mount attacks against the West. As General Brent Scowcroft explained to me, the United States has gone back to clean up the mess that it left behind in the 1980s.

That is the history that Musharraf and many of his countrymen and generals remember vividly, as they decide to put themselves and Pakistan first in their dealings with the United States. They are relying on the short attention span of US political leaders and policy makers and the huge distraction of the upcoming president election season in the United States to take attention away from Pakistan.

But will they successfully buck history? The growing political awareness of the Pakistani people and the burgeoning new media that ironically Musharraf helped foster have become important weapons against autocracy in Pakistan today. And the new found confidence of the Men in Black, the lawyers who defeated Musharraf in the streets and in the Supreme Court earlier this year, may yet be the spur to the street movement against him. He realizes that the army is his only base. Once he sheds his uniform he will have distanced himself from his power base. Then, if the army, disheartened by its deployment and sorry performance in the border region of Afghanistan, feels it cannot confront and lose the respect of its population, Musharraf may have little left to sustain him in power.

The United States needs to review this history too. Unlike the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, perhaps this time it will come out unequivocally in favor of the people of Pakistan and regain their trust and friendship. If not, then Iraq and Iran may seem to be minor challenges compared to what might emerge in a fractured and nuclear Pakistan in the years ahead.

Shuja Nawaz, a politico-military analyst based in the Washington DC area, is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within (forthcoming) for Oxford University Press.