Pakistan: An alliance in crisis

Irfan Husain

US-Pakistan relations are at an all-time low: the USA’s mistrust of its ally in the ‘war on terror’ is growing and there is rising opposition within Pakistan to America and its operations in Afghanistan. But until the Pakistan government cuts all ties with extremist groups and ends its fixation with curbing Indian influence, the situation will remain close to breaking point. 


The uproar in Pakistan over the killing of 24 soldiers in border checkpoints along the poorly marked Afghan frontier in November revealed the deep fissures in the country’s fraught relationship with the USA. Without waiting for a formal enquiry into the incident, Pakistan’s politicians, public and media immediately asserted this was yet another example of American contempt for the country. 

This was the third major incident within a year, and caused relations between the two supposed allies to plummet to new depths. The first was in January when Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor, gunned down two Pakistanis in a Lahore street. When arrested, he said he had fired in self-defence, and claimed diplomatic immunity. Although he was freed a few weeks later, after blood money was paid to the deceased’s families, there was great public outcry and the government came under tremendous pressure to put him on trial. 

But perhaps nothing has done more to strain US-Pakistan relations than the second major incident – the 2 May commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, a major army garrison town. Most Pakistanis were outraged that the military was unable to detect and block the American intrusion deep within the country. 

The relationship between the USA and Pakistan has often been likened to a bad marriage that neither partner can bear to end. On a recent visit to repair the damage, Hilary Clinton, the US secretary of state, was given another metaphor for the fraught alliance: America, she was told, is “like a mother-in-law who is never satisfied with her daughter-in-law, and is always critical.” 

While Clinton may have had found this amusing, the fact is that the US demands for Pakistan to “do more” in the war against the Taliban and its allies are beginning to grate in a country where over 5,000 security personnel have been killed since 2001. In addition, at least 30,000 civilians have lost their lives in a wave of terrorist strikes across the country. A vast majority of Pakistanis believe they are being made to pay the price for the US-led occupation of Afghanistan. 

This popular perception is fuelled by the rising tempo of drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas which, while killing a large number of al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders and fighters, is also causing enormous suffering to those civilians among whom the terrorists have deliberately taken shelter. Unable to hit back at their American tormentors guiding unmanned aircraft from the safety of bases in the USA, militants are venting their anger on Pakistani military and civilian targets. 

Against this background, it is hardly surprising that a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre found that only 12 percent of Pakistanis have a favourable view of America, and almost 70 percent consider the USA to be an enemy. 

The popular mantra in Pakistan is that politicians can only come to power with the approval of the three As: Allah, the Army and America. This perception was underlined when an unsigned memo, supposedly dictated by Husain Haqqani, the Pakistani ambassador to the USA, and delivered to Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, surfaced in the international media. This document expressed fears of an army coup in the wake of the bin Laden raid, and called upon the USA to intervene on behalf of Pakistan’s civilian government. In return, the Americans were promised greater cooperation in their war in Afghanistan, and more disclosure about Pakistan’s nuclear programme. 

Although the Pakistani government of Asif Zardari immediately distanced itself from the document, and Haqqani denied authorship, the Pakistan army was furious. An immediate campaign to pin the memo on the government was launched by the opposition and a hostile media. The result was that the Pakistani ambassador to Washington, a highly regarded diplomat, journalist and author of a controversial book on the army’s damaging role in politics, was recalled to Islamabad and forced to resign. 

From the US perspective, Pakistan is an ally that cannot be trusted. A series of media leaks by senior officials and generals have accused the Pakistani military and the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of playing a double game, covertly supporting the Taliban while selectively handing over a few al-Qaeda operatives to keep America happy. 

Unsurprisingly, the Pakistan government vehemently denies these allegations, protesting that, as the biggest victim of jihadist terror, the country would hardly help the groups ruthlessly targeting its citizens. However, the USA needs to understand that its security needs are unlikely to supersede Pakistan’s own threat perceptions. Pakistani generals have traditionally viewed India as the country’s existential threat, and are concerned that once Western forces leave Afghanistan, Indian influence, already strong, will expand and Pakistan will be encircled.

To counter this perceived threat, the high command is reluctant to pull out the bulk of its armed forces from their stations facing India, even though the army is taking its heaviest casualties along the Afghan border. And to cater for a continuation of the civil war in Afghanistan once US troops have been withdrawn, the Pakistan army wants to have proxies in place. 

One of these is the Haqqani group in North Waziristan, a tribal area on the Afghan border. It is this outfit that launched an audacious attack on the US embassy in Kabul last September. Admiral Mullen accused the ISI of using the Haqqanis to “export terrorism to Afghanistan.” 

Such a serious allegation from a senior American official is an indication of the brittle nature of the relationship. Clinton, on her recent visit to Islamabad, made her country’s frustration clear in her meetings with top politicians and generals. Pakistan’s problem is that given the ongoing attacks from various militant groups, the last thing it needs is to provoke the powerful Haqqanis to join the ranks of its enemies. 

The fact is that unless Pakistan’s generals are somehow coaxed out of their fixation with India, they will be unable to fully focus on the war against Islamic militants. Many voices are calling for the government to break off its alliance with America and look east to China – its “all-weather friend”, according to the Pakistani prime minister. However, while China provides Pakistan with military and economic assistance, it has neither the resources nor the technology to take over America’s role as Pakistan’s biggest donor. It also does not wish to get sucked into Pakistan’s unending confrontation with India. 

Pakistan’s military leadership, the main architects of the country’s security and foreign policies, are walking a tightrope. While pitching for the continued supply of modern US arms, the generals also want to prepare for 2014 when American forces will be pulled out of Afghanistan. Much can happen between now and then.

About the author:

Irfan Husain is a columnist for Dawn, Pakistan's largest English-language daily newspaper


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