It would not be an exaggeration to say that in the long and chequered history of America’s relations with Pakistan the state of the ties between the two countries has never been worse. On the surface the immediate problem is the American refusal to pay the demanded transit fee for the use of the Ground Line of Communications, as the American military jargon has it, or more simply the transit routes from Pakistan’s port at Karachi to Chaman and Torkham the two principally used entry points into Afghanistan. American Secretary of Defence, Panetta, has said recently that this closure was costing the USA $100 million a month extra since it forced them to use the Northern Distribution network for the 33% of supplies that were passing through Pakistan till November 24th 2011 when the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers at the border post of Salala caused the Pakistani to close the transit routes.
The other is the Pakistani demand for an apology for the Salala killings. The Pakistanis in recent days have been stating that it is not the transit fee that the Americans should be asked to pay but the absence of an apology that is the main sticking point.
On the American side there is a reluctance to pay the transit fee demanded given the fact that for the last decade they had paid nothing for this service. There is also a reluctance to offer the apology the Pakistanis are demanding because in this election year such an apology for a tragedy in which an American inquiry in which the Pakistanis did not participate held that there were mistakes on both sides would exacerbate Obama’s difficulties.
There is also the perennial complaint that Pakistan needs to do more to curb the activities of groups on Pakistani soil who launch attacks in Afghanistan and then by American accounts return to safe havens in Pakistan. This is what the Pakistanis call the “do more” syndrome that afflicts American policy makers and which by Pakistani reckoning ignores the fact that the NATO effort along the same border is poor and is being made poorer by the withdrawal of troops from that area.
A further deterioration of the ambience was caused by Secretary Panetta’s remarks during his visit to India when he called upon India to play a more active role in Afghanistan, something that causes concern in Pakistan’s security circles. This concern was reinforced when in answering questions Panetta recounted with relish that the Pakistanis had been unaware of the raid in which Bin Laden was killed in Abbotabad. Lastly Panetta added further fuel to the fire by remarks in Kabul that the USA was losing patience with Pakistan.
While both sides maintain that the departure of the American team that was negotiating the transit issue has not meant the cutting off of the dialogue there is little doubt that the mood in both countries is ugly and shows few signs of improving at the public level. Anti American feeling on the streets in Pakistan is at an all time high and in America the press has moved from Pakistan being a friend to being a “frenemy” to now being a virtual enemy.
The cause of all this is of course the situation in Afghanistan and the American perception that the Pakistanis are not doing enough to prevent Afghan groups on Pakistan soil launching attacks on NATO and Afghan targets in Afghanistan and then returning to their safe havens in Pakistan. The Pakistani argument that NATO, as much as Pakistan should do more to man the border and prevent infiltration into Afghanistan from areas in Pakistan that Pakistan does not fully control wins little favour in Washington. The Pakistanis feel that Pakistan is being made the scapegoat for the NATO and Afghan government failures in Afghanistan.
Many in America are prepared to acknowledge that Pakistan has its hands full handling what amounts to being an internal insurgency led by the Tehrik-e-Taliban, a group of militants ostensibly opposed to Pakistan’s alliance with the USA in the war on terror but in practice largely a group of criminals who want a free hand to continue their unlawful activities in the loosely administered tribal areas of Pakistan. But this has not prevented the playing of the “do more” refrain. The real situation in my view is that politically and militarily Pakistan has to tackle the situation in its tribal areas if it is to survive as a viable state but how this should be done must be determined by the Pakistanis and must alleviate rather than exacerbate the problem.
It is ironic that Pakistan and the USA have entered this dismal phase in their relations at this time when for the first time in the chequered history of their relations both have a commonality of interest. Today Pakistan and the United States both want a peaceful and stable Afghanistan. Both want the elimination of terrorism and extremism from the region with the United States laying a special emphasis on promoting stability in Pakistan, given the apprehensions about Pakistan’s status as a nuclear weapon state. Pakistan may, at some time have talked about wanting a “friendly government” in Afghanistan and seeking to minimise Indian influence in Afghanistan but now the statements emerging from all centres of power focus merely on a peaceful stable Afghanistan and some even warn of the dangers that Pakistan would face if there were to be a Taliban takeover after the withdrawal of foreign forces.
Differences certainly exist on how these end objectives are to be achieved but there is no reason, once a modicum of trust is restored that these differences cannot be worked out to achieve the shared goals of the two sides. Trust however is in short supply and this is turn owes to the frustration and sense of betrayal that characterises the narrative of past relations particularly on the Pakistan side. Let us look at what the past relations were.
Today’s commonality of interests is a far cry from the days when a “contrived commonality” of interest was constructed to serve the very different objectives of the two sides. In the 50’s, the United States was intent on building, as part of the Cold War, an anti-Soviet alliance of the nations lying along the borders of the Soviet Central Asian Republics both to contain physical “Soviet expansionism” and to prevent the spread of the communist ideology into the oil-rich Middle East. Pakistan, a newly created country, on the other hand felt that Indians, opposed to the creation of Pakistan which they regarded as the vivisection of “Mother India”, would take advantage of Pakistan’s weak defence forces to undo partition. It was, therefore, looking for enhancing its defence capabilities against the threat to its security posed by the belligerence of its Indian neighbour. It had no quarrel with the Soviet Union and was anxious to ensure, before the question of the alliance with the United States came up, that its relations with the Soviet Union should be such as would enable the Soviet Union to take a more even handed approach towards the nations of South Asia. To achieve its objective of improving its defence capabilities and to benefit from the economic aid it needed, Pakistan had perforce to take on the mantle of anti-communism terming it a “Godless ideology” and became the most “allied of allies” in the US camp.
While the mutual assistance treaty clearly stated that the USA would come to the assistance of Pakistan only in the event of “communist aggression” certain diplomatic exchanges led Pakistan to believe that American assistance would be forthcoming in the event of an Indo-Pak conflict. Disillusionment set in when following the Sino-Indian war the Americans and British gave massive aid to India did nothing substantive to persuade India to honour its pledges for holding a plebiscite in Kashmir and thus help restore normalcy to Indo-Pak relations. All that was achieved was the holding of Indo-Pak talks on Kashmir, which came to naught.
In 1965 when India and Pakistan went to war the Americans imposed an embargo on supply of arms to both parties knowing full well that it was Pakistan alone, which was dependent on American arms supplies with India getting much of its weaponry from the Soviet Union.
In the ensuing years relations remained distant and though the American administration under Nixon expressed gratitude to Pakistan for acting as the bridge between China and the US there was deep disappointment in Pakistan that the USA did little to prevent the dismemberment of Pakistan even when it was known that India had taken full advantage of Pakistan’s own follies to engineer the creation of Bangladesh. There was perhaps little appreciation for the fact that it was the intervention of the United States and the Soviet Union which ensured that that the Indo-Pak war on the western front did not lead, as the Indian Prime minister India Gandhi would have liked, to the destruction of the Pakistan army.
The next period, when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto held the reins of power in Pakistan was a period of tension between the US and Pakistan. The US armed forces were still heavily dependent on the US for the spare parts and repair facilities for the military equipment received earlier. These requirements were met only in part and then became victim like the rest of the relationship to the American concerns about Pakistan seeking to acquire a nuclear reprocessing plant from France even while Pakistan perceived the Americans as condoning rather than condemning and punishing the so-called peaceful nuclear explosion carried out by India. What is best remembered about this period in Pakistan is that Secretary Kissinger told Prime Minister Bhutto that a “horrible example” would be made of him.
This and the subsequent early years of the Zia administration represented a phase in which Pakistan went from being the most allied of allies to being the most sanctioned of allies. In April 1979 sanctions were imposed when the US determined that Pakistan had acquired the technology and was manufacturing highly enriched uranium. It was the period in which incorrect reports about the takeover of the holy Mosque in Saudi Arabia rioting crowds attacked the US embassy and burnt it down. It was, until then, perhaps the lowest point in US-Pak relations.