The news of Osama bin Laden’ s death comes on the heels of the Wall Street Journal report (April 27) that Pakistan, America’s key partner in its war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, is lobbying Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai against building a long-term strategic partnership with the US — instead urging Karzai to look to Pakistan for help in reaching a peace deal with the Taliban and rebuilding Afghanistan.
It was Mohammad Ali Jinnah who had first sought American engagement in an interview with Life in September 1947, a month after the new nation was carved out of British India, claiming, “America needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs America.” In fact, to gain American ties, Pakistan even faked a Soviet invasion of Pakistan in the 1950s.
Consequently, Pakistan quickly joined the American alliances of Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (Seato) and Central Treaty Organisation (Cento). But the two nations have had a troubled relationship, reflected in General Ayub Khan’s Friends not Masters, his autobiography and the basis of the terms on which every Pakistani leader has sought an American alliance and General Pervez Musharraf’ s polemical autobiography In the Line of Fire.
The reason for the troubled relationship between the two nations lies in their divergent interests. Pakistan’s interest in America was, and remains, pecuniary and for support against India; America’s interest in Pakistan was, and remains, geopolitical. Successive American admirations came to view Pakistan as a key to the defence of West Asia. But they were never sure how it would contribute to the larger objective.
The two times the US and Pakistan engaged in strategic partnerships, there was a general in power in Islamabad. In 1979, America was responding to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan when General Zia-ul-Haq was in control; in 2001, the US invaded Afghanistan in response to 9/11 when General Pervez Musharraf was in power. But both times Pakistanis responded violently to American intervention in the region, attacking the American embassy, properties, and personnel.
According to the latest Pew report, 68% of Pakistanis disapprove of the US, 61% disliked Americans, and 65% want the US and Nato forces to pull out from Afghanistan. And thanks to the expanded drone attacks, President Barack Obama scored the lowest among world leaders polled in Pakistan in 2010, lower than the 10% approval rating of George W Bush. Asif Ali Zardari is viewed negatively by 76% of the Pakistanis, whereas the military is viewed favourably by 84%. Tellingly, Pakistanis are now — compared to how they were in 2009 — less worried about extremists taking over the nation. In 2009, 73% viewed the Taliban as a serious threat; now only 54% see them as dangerous. Those who viewed the Taliban and al-Qaeda favourably have increased (5% and 9%, respectively, since 2009).
The US has provided over $20 billion in aid (military and civilian) to Pakistan between 2002 and 2010, not counting the liberal debt restructuring. Pakistan, however, feels that not all the American economic assistance can be termed as aid since Pakistani troops are fighting American wars. And that is the rub: Pakistan doesn’t see the Islamist threat as a challenge to itself; it views the ‘war on terror’ as having to kill co-religionists on American orders, and Pakistanis view the Zardari government as America’s ‘mistress’.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, general Hameed Gul, the former head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), said, “We knew all along that it (the war on terror) would eventually come to Pakistan,” adding, “If America carried the operation without the cooperation of ISI, then it will definitely be seen as a direct attack on Pakistan’ s integrity and its sovereignty.” Regardless of the rhetoric in Islamabad and Washington, and notwithstanding Pakistan proving to be a reluctant and doubtful ally, the fact remains that the US needs Pakistan, as the latter alone can defeat terrorist plots in that country and help the US pull out of Afghanistan.
Ravi Kalia is professor of history at The City College of New York and, editor, Pakistan From the Rhetoric of Democracy to the Rise of Militancy (Routledge, 2011).
The views expressed by the author are personal