Ten years after the 9/11 attacks, US-Pakistani relations have reached a nadir. American policymakers charge that the Pakistani military has been aiding and abetting the very enemies both countries are purportedly fighting. The Pakistan Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), in turn, accuse Washington of disregarding both their nation’s sacrifices and its strategic interests, and in the process riding roughshod over Pakistan’s sovereignty and self-respect. On both sides, corrosive accusations about duplicity and betrayal are commonplace, even as each bends backwards to publicly proclaim an alliance against global terrorism.
In retrospect, it is ironic that the tragedy of September 11, 2001 – the very event that rescued US-Pakistani ties from their earlier morass – should have engendered the events that have now taken bilateral relations to their deepest crisis. But it should not be surprising: the US-Pakistani partnership has been steadily marching to a meltdown ever since it was resuscitated, thanks to divergent objectives, poor alternatives, and endless illusions.
For an alliance ostensibly cemented by common foes, it is surprising how divergent the US and Pakistani objectives in the war on terror have been – from the very beginning. To be sure, Islamabad never sought a role in this conflict. It was brought into it, kicking and screaming, against its will. On September 12, 2001, the Bush administration forced General Pervez Musharraf to sacrifice Pakistan’s clients in Afghanistan in order to support the US military campaign against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
Musharraf responded by confronting Al-Qaeda - an organisation that did little for Pakistan’s strategic interests – while protecting the Taliban – Pakistan’s investment that promised security along its western frontier. Given the success of Operation Enduring Freedom, American policymakers cared little about Musharraf’s choice: the Taliban were viewed as defeated stragglers who would never again trouble the United States or its allies in Kabul.
Instead, Washington remained fixated for understandable reasons on Al-Qaeda. It was also concerned deeply about Pakistan – not the country as much as its nuclear weapons, which the US policymakers feared could fall into terrorist hands with disastrous consequences.
The solution to these dangers turned out to be Musharraf. Like many before him, the glib dictator shrewdly sized up the United States. He used the substantial US assistance that had been offered to Pakistan to strengthen his own position domestically, rearm the wasting Pakistani military, and wage a campaign against Al-Qaeda and some domestic sectarian groups – all the while carefully protecting the Afghan Taliban and the anti-Indian jihadi groups because of their value for Pakistan’s strategic interests.
This selective counterterrorism worked as long as Pakistan continued to apprehend high value Al-Qaeda targets and Washington did not care about the other groups protected by Pakistan. Although the United States was aware of ISI’s active support for the Taliban resurgence as early as 2003 and the anti-Indian jihadis even earlier, these activities did not receive serious attention so long as Afghanistan remained stable and Indo-Pakistani crises were avoided.
When troubles with India threatened to spin out of control, the United States pressed Pakistan to crack down on groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). But the real strains only emerged when the Pakistani backing of the Quetta Shura began to dangerously undermine US military operations in Afghanistan. This collision, which has grown in intensity since 2006, finally put to bed the internal US government debate about whether Pakistani support for jihadi groups was merely a “rogue” ISI operation or the considered policy of Pakistan’s “deep state”.
When the intelligence overwhelmingly confirmed the latter, American policymakers were forced to confront the reality they had earlier wished away: Pakistan, a supposedly committed ally in the war on terrorism was also America’s inveterate adversary. It accepted the substantial US financial and material assistance to target enemies that threatened Pakistan, even as it aided other groups that attacked American and allied citizens in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
This crafty strategy derived from deeply divergent objectives: The United States sought to eradicate Al-Qaeda and the Taliban because they represented violent extremist threats; the Pakistani military sought to protect at least the latter because it served the abiding rivalry with Afghanistan and India. The persistence of this policy over an entire decade led increasingly to unilateral American operations inside Pakistan, a deepening distrust of the Pakistan Army and especially the ISI, and a hardening US conviction of Pakistani perfidy in regards to counterterrorism.
The American realisation that Pakistani strategic objectives differed from those of the United States nevertheless failed to produce any dramatic alteration in overall policy because few alternatives offered a better chance of success. The United States remained reliant on Pakistan for access and the security of its ground lines of communication into Afghanistan. And Pakistani cooperation against Al-Qaeda was indispensable.
Consequently, Washington continued to solicit Pakistani cooperation through persistent bribery in the hope that the Pakistan Army’s policies might change. The United States, however, attempted to revise the nature of that payment in order to increase its efficacy. In particular, Barack Obama’s administration sought to reorient the partnership by increasing the emphasis on civilian assistance and by seeking elevated engagement with the civilian government in Islamabad.
Both efforts, unfortunately, have borne only meagre fruit. The increased civilian assistance has not reached Pakistan at the levels promised and US economic troubles make high levels of future American aid suspect. Moreover, increased US assistance to Pakistan has only enabled the military to sustain its customary high defence allocations at lower cost and without forcing any change in its traditional strategy.
Engaging the Zardari government has also sputtered in part because of the regime’s own failings, and partly because Washington could not resist dealing with General Ashfaq Kayani – sometimes for inescapable reasons – in ways that further sidelined the civilian government.
The United States, therefore, has continued to press Rawalpindi while becoming increasingly embittered that the natural harmony of interests presumed to exist between Pakistan and the United States remains largely a mirage.
What has finally made the desired US-Pakistan strategic cooperation so elusive are the endless illusions bedevilling both sides. The United States imagined that it could coax Pakistan into sacrificing its jihadi proxies through financial and military assistance, occasional compellance, and the promise of a strategic partnership. However significant these elements might have been, they have failed to satisfy the Pakistani military’s institutional interests and assuage its paranoia about India.
Rawalpindi, for its part, imagined that the strategy of hunting with the American hounds while running with the jihadi hares was sustainable indefinitely – even after 9/11 irrevocably changed the rules of the game. Or perhaps, Pakistan’s generals imagined that Washington would not notice or care – a supposition that however justified early on cannot be sustained today even if the military’s domestic and regional preoccupations outweigh its worries about American dissatisfaction. Either way, these illusions undermine whatever prospects existed for sturdy bilateral ties. They also confirm that the real surprise is not the meltdown in the US-Pakistani relations, but the fact that it took so long to materialise.