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US / Pakistani Relations, Then and Now

The Trust Deficit

by M. REZA PIRBHAI

For more than a decade, Americans have been wondering if they can trust Pakistan. Their primary concern is whether the Pakistani establishment (or elements within it), which receives financial aid and publically proclaims allegiance, is privately acting against US global interests expressed in the ‘War on Terror.’ Obviously, Usama bin Laden’s long residency and final demise in Pakistan has only amplified the alarm.

Pakistanis, meanwhile, are also fretful. The government is hurrying to contain the damage. President Zardari is busy reminding everyone (as in a letter penned for the Washington Post) that his wife ? Benazir Bhutto ? sacrificed herself for this joint US-Pakistani cause. Bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan was an intelligence failure. The US raid on his compound without Pakistani knowledge was uncalled-for. This leaves one basic question for the Pakistani public to answer on its own. Is the military and/or civilian establishment too incompetent to secure Pakistan’s sovereignty against the US and al-Qaida? No matter the direction individual Pakistani media outlets spin the answer, the policies pursued by the US and Pakistani establishment are held responsible for the obvious demise, along with Bin Laden, of Pakistani sovereignty.
The virtual absence of concern for Pakistani sovereignty in the mainstream US discourse, and its centrality in Pakistan’s, echoes the vast gulf in power between these states. For the US, it is all very simple. It is a global power with limited interest in Pakistan. It pays Pakistan for certain services and, whether by Pakistani duplicity or incompetence, payment has not yielded desired results. Thus, by this logic, all conventions ? including the concept of Pakistani sovereignty ? are of no consequence at all. By way of contrast, the complexity of the Pakistani discourse, including the plethora of options and opinions offered, highlights Pakistan’s subordinate position. The imperious right of US rhetoric is met with Pakistani bombast and jitter, anger and apologia, and, in some cases, outright embarrassment. There is no debate on whether sovereignty is lost. Every commentator simply gropes for a coherent response now that that loss, mutedly acknowledged for years, is being broadcast around the world.    

This gulf in power is closely related to the deficits in trust plaguing US-Pakistani relations. Field Marshal Ayub Khan (d. 1974) was the first military dictator of Pakistan, seizing power in a bloodless coup in 1958. He was also the first Pakistani leader ? military or civilian – to place his country firmly on the US side of a war; the Cold War. His reasoning was spelled out in his autobiography. Provide the US strategic and military support through such organs as the Central Treaty Organization (with Iran, Iraq, Turkey and the UK); receive a super-power umbrella and a steady supply of first-rank weapons to shore up defenses against Soviet-leaning India and Afghanistan. His only reservation was that by entering into an alliance with a global power, Pakistan’s regional interests may be overshadowed by US global interests. In fact, he was concerned enough to title his autobiography Friends not Masters (1967).

By the late 1960’s, when Ayub Khan published his autobiography, he clearly felt let down. The US had not only sold weapons to India in the wake of the Sino-Indian War of 1962, it remained neutral in the 1965 Indo-Pak War. Much to his dismay, the US had argued that the Central Treaty Organization only guaranteed military mobilization in the case of conflict with the Soviet Union, not India. A deficit in trust, rooted in divergent global and regional interests, had arisen. Ayub Khan’s response was to keep close to the US, but warm relations with China and thaw those with the USSR. One way to avoid falling prey to a powerful master was to have many powerful friends.

Ayub Khan’s trust deficit ? one essentially rooted in asymmetries of power and divergent interests – has echoed through the history of Pakistan. In 1971, India and Pakistan went to war again. The US response was much the same as in 1965, particularly once the USSR displayed strong support for India. As Foreign Minister in Ayub’s Khan’s regime, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (d. 1979) had played a part in crafting the post-1965 strategy of tacit non-alignment. As Prime Minister, then President, from 1972 to 1978, Bhutto progressed further down the same foreign policy path, participating in the Central Treaty Organization while furthering ties with China. Two important innovations, however, followed the rise of new regional conditions. First, Bhutto responded to India’s 1974 nuclear weapons tests by launching Pakistan on the nuclear road. Second, seeking to ease the financial ruin in which post-war Pakistan found itself, he accentuated pan-Islamic rhetoric to cement relations with the emerging oil-rich, labour-poor Arabian Peninsula states.

A decade after the military regime of Ayub Khan fell amid mass agitation, the opposite happened: mass agitation provided the pretext for a military coup. Domestic authoritarianism and the unfulfilled party promise of roti-kapra-makan (food-clothing-shelter) led many Pakistanis to abandon Bhutto, too. The beleaguered leader responded by rigging the 1977 general elections, adding fuel to the fire. The military saw its chance to regain political pre-eminence, partially eroded by the humiliation Bhutto had heaped on it after the losses of 1971. General Zia ul-Haq (d. 1988), therefore, deposed Bhutto in 1978, on the same pretext that Ayub Khan had taken power 20 years before. The military would save Pakistan from its corrupt and ineffectual politicians. Of course, the Zia ul-Haq’s first step was Bhutto’s execution in 1979.

Although it made the world’s headlines, Bhutto’s execution was overshadowed by greater conflagrations. Prime among them were Iran’s ‘Islamic’ revolution, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The first hammered the last nail in the coffin of the Central Treaty Organization; the second reinvigorated bi-lateral ties between the US and Pakistan, otherwise on the wane since 1971. US military aid to Pakistan boomed, again. Cooperation between US and Pakistani intelligence reached its zenith. Neither came at the expense of Pak-Chinese relations, as US-China relations had considerably improved over the 1970’s.

Furthermore, regional ties with the Arabian Peninsula states could be strengthened. As mutual friends with the US and Pakistan, the latter’s relationship with the Arabian Peninsula states ballooned beyond oil and labor, to include extensive financial, trade, military and, crucially for Pakistani society, ideological ties. From mujahidin for Afghanistan to legitimation for a military regime at home, all was packaged under the ideology of ‘Islamization’; that is, an interpretation of Islam helpful to the US in Afghanistan, acceptable to regional allies like Saudi Arabia and represented in Pakistan by religio-political parties open to military rule.   

Entering the 1980’s, it must have seemed to the Zia-regime that it had achieved what Ayub Khan first sought through enhanced relations with the US. Although not a formal super-power umbrella such as the Central Treaty Organization, bi-lateral relations had provided informal cover. As long as the US perceived its interests to lie in Pakistan, the threat of Indian aggression abated.  A steady supply of US weapons must also have eased the Pakistan military’s nerves. As well, the extension of Pakistani influence through ‘Islamization’ in Afghanistan under US auspices provided much sought after ‘strategic depth’ in relation to India. And, perhaps most reassuringly for Pakistan’s military planners, their nuclear weapons program could make great strides without US objection. A balance, they must have thought, had been struck between the global interests of the US and the regional interests of Pakistan. Some facets of Pakistani sovereignty had been maintained. At the bare minimum, no one was bombing Pakistani territory, right?

Wrong. In 1984, India seized the Siachen Glacier and surrounding areas (roughly 1000 square miles), opening a new front in the Kashmir conflict. Until then, neither India nor Pakistan had any presence in this high, mountainous region on the Chinese border. Only de facto Pakistani sovereignty had been acknowledged by various governmental and private agencies, as reflected in the maps produced by the US Defense Mapping Agency as far back as the 1960’s. Whatever the correct legal status of Siachen, the events of 1984 at least illustrate that if US-Pak relations under Zia ul-Haq were meant to secure Pakistani borders and territorial claims, they were failing even then. US global interests did not include the Kashmir dispute in 1984, any more than in 1965 or 1971. So, the deficit in trust grew further, but would not begin reaching today’s crest until Zia ul-Haq’s assassination in 1988.

As with Bhutto, Zia’s death was overshadowed by global events. Most significantly, the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 and the Union itself collapsed soon after. The Cold War ended. The immediate consequence for Pakistan was that the US then switched sides in the mess left behind in Afghanistan. From supporting Pakistan-backed Pashtun groups against the Soviets, the US allied with India in supporting the Northern Alliance. Wide-ranging sanctions were imposed on Pakistan under the pretext of containing its nuclear program. Even military equipment that Pakistan had paid for was withheld. Then, about 1994, the powers-that-be decided that Pakistan-backed groups would better suit US interests, so the Northern Alliance was abandoned in favor of the Taliban. Sanctions on Pakistan were eased and relations sweetened, only to sour again by 1998, when it was deemed that the Taliban would not serve US interests in Central Asia, after all. Relations with India were considered more important to any US interests in the entire region and beyond. So, Pakistan was out and the US finally took a stand on Kashmir. For deploying the same tactics in Kashmir as the US had employed against the Soviets in Afghanistan, talk of Pakistan being a ‘state-sponsor of terrorism’ began. For the Kargil Conflict (1999) ? which was the latest of many back-and-forth rounds on the Siachen front ? relations with Pakistan were virtually severed. 

It was then, in the late 1990’s, that a deficit of trust in Pakistan became entrenched in the US public discourse.  Despite the Pakistani establishment’s multiple compromises on regional interests since ‘9/11,’ worry has only grown. Even the surrender of sovereignty itself to CIA drone strikes and contractors did not silence the chorus. Rather it was progressively enhanced; a position now argued to have been justified by Bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan.

The US perspective, however, entirely ignores the Pakistani.  Ayub Khan’s autobiography discloses that this history is not as shallow as Pakistan’s late associations with Al-Qaida, the Taliban or any other self-professed Islamists. Rather, distrust is rooted in Pakistan’s much longer association with the US. It stems from seeking to address a small state’s regional interests through the patronage of a global power. It spreads with the confirmation that relations require the smaller party to sacrifice some or all of its regional interests to meet the big powers changing global strategies. It is nourished by the periodic purchase of the smaller government. It blossoms when the sovereignty of the smaller party is routinely and triumphantly trampled. As Bin Laden’s years in Pakistan confirm, such asymmetrical relations of power and conflicting interests could even raise a level of support for the fugitive al-Qaida leader.

This trust deficit may not ease US minds, but it does reveal that exclusively friendly relations, built on trust, cannot be expected when one state is required to accept another as master.

M. Reza Pirbhai is an Assistant Professor of South Asian History at
Louisiana State University. He can be reached at: rpirbhai@lsu.edu