Pak-US Relations

Written by Aamina Binte Khurram 12:30 pm

The Highs and Lows of Pak-US Relations: From the Cold War to Now

The relations between Pakistan and the United States have always been based upon national interests and America’s dominant power position. While analyzing the history of this relationship, Aamina Binte Khurram argues that since the 1950s, the US has done its best to influence Pakistan’s foreign and domestic policies and pressurized the state to do its bidding in the South Asian region. The United States has leveraged Pakistan’s weaker position, and coerced Pakistani leaders on many occasions. Hence, it comes as no surprise that the Pakistan-US relationship has been marred with periods of hostility whenever the interests of the two states have diverged.
Gul Seema

About the Author(s)

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Ms Aamina Binte Khurram is pursuing a Bachelor's in Software Engineering from NUST.

The Rocky Pakistan-US Relations

In an ideal world, all relationships are archetypes of Disney love stories: they’re all sunshine and roses. Partners are respectful of the agency and ambition of one another and support each other through thick and thin. In real life, however, many relationships, unfortunately, don’t meet these standards and are built on less-than-ideal frameworks.

Particularly fragile are those relationships where there exists an inequity in decision-making and authority. When there is an imbalance in the power dynamics of a relationship, the relationship changes from a true partnership to more of an authoritative arrangement.

Often, the partner exerting greater influence takes advantage of the limitations and weaknesses of the other, coercing and influencing them to partake in activities and roles that benefit the more powerful partner yet harm the subordinated one. This analogy of an unequal partnership can be applied to the Pak-US relations.

Our nearly seventy-year relationship with the US has been quite tumultuous. At times, we have seen one another as the closest of friends, and at many others as unreliable actors who cannot be entrusted with the responsibility of ally-ship. The unique and intricate Pak-US relations have always been held on a delicate balance between which country needs the other more and for how long.

Such a fragile balance is easy to break and over the years, it often has broken down. Yet somehow, like a self-righting toy, it always reconsolidates in one shape or the other.

Cold War: A Period of Consolidation

The saga begins in 1950, when Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, toured the United States for an official 23-day visit. This is often seen as the single most significant event that kicked off Pakistan and US relations, which, for the first few years at least, turned out to be warm and friendly. Post-partition, the newly found fragile state of Pakistan was looking to make meaningful partnerships and collaborations in the global arena, which was governed by the bloc politics of the Cold War.

Pak-US relations
Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan speaking with President Harry S. Truman on his visit to the US (1950).

Initially, the country attempted to stay non-aligned and forge relationships with both the USSR and the US—the major political actors of the time, and the chief heavyweights of communism and capitalism, respectively. However, it soon became apparent that such an approach was unrealistic.

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India had garnered the support and ally-ship of the Soviet Union, which was now providing financial and military aid to Pakistan’s chief enemy in the region. And to the common Pakistani, the Soviet Union represented all the principles of unfair wealth distribution they despised. Thus, when Liaqat Ali Khan received the invitation to visit the US for his first official trip to the country, he immediately accepted and spent the next few weeks meeting American leaders and the public, introducing them to Pakistan and its history.

From the time of Liaquat Ali Khan up to 1971, the US and Pakistan enjoyed a relationship of mutual goodwill. Successive leaders, including the military ones – Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan – paid visits to the US, and American leaders regarded Pakistan as an important ally in controlling the expansion of Communist influence. 

Thus, from the very beginning, as is in all international ties, there was something in it for both parties—economic and military aid for the developing nation, and a military counterweight to the Soviet Union for the capitalist superpower.

Bhutto and the Strained Pak-US Relations

The first “cracks” in the ice began to appear when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto became the president of the country in 1971. His socialist ideas aligned more with communism, and he was a staunch believer in leftist politics. Bhutto, who later became the prime minister of Pakistan in 1973, began efforts to make Pakistan non-aligned. The Pak-US relations became particularly strained during the time of President Jimmy Carter. An anti-socialist, President Carter tightened embargos on Pakistan and took a hard stance against Bhutto’s policies and plans.

In response to India’s nuclear program, Pakistan had begun developing a nuclear weapons program of its own. The United States, instead of recognizing that nuclear arms were now a matter of life and death for Pakistan as an unfair hegemony in the region had been established by India, overtly and covertly continued to exert pressure on Pakistan to forego its nuclear development program, placing multiple sanctions and embargos.

Post-Bhutto, the Pak-US relations once again began to thaw and when in 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the US immediately called upon Pakistan as an ally to aid in fighting against the Soviets. Pakistan was given millions in aid and weapons, all with the intention of protecting the US’ sphere of influence.

After democracy was restored in Pakistan in 1988, the Pakistan and US relations once more took a sour turn, under prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, who were pressured to halt Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence program. At the same time, US-India ties strengthened. On its part, Pakistan saw the United States as not doing enough to halt India’s nuclear weapons program, which it regarded as an existential threat.

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Post-9/11 Ties

The next defining moment in Pakistan-US relations came after the September 11 attacks. The US once again took Pakistan on board as a major strategic and military ally against its War on Terror. Despite having been a supporter of the Taliban pre-9/11, the Pakistani government took a renewed stance on the Taliban, now fighting against it. In this era of Pakistan-US relatThe US was provided with military assistance in the form of military bases to further its “anti-terror” operations.

In the last decade or so, there have been two pivotal points in Pakistan-US relations. The first was when US marines killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in 2011. What followed was a period of mutual distrust and disdain not just at the governmental level, but also at the national level, emotions in the public in both nations were running high and the mistrust of another deepened incredibly.

It seemed as if it would now be impossible to become “friends” again. Yet, like always, the ice eventually thawed. The second important event is much more recent: the American withdrawal from Afghanistan after two decades of invasion and the establishment of the Taliban government in the state. Having always viewed Pakistan through the prism of Afghanistan, how will the US now advance its relationship with Pakistan?

It seems as if since losing one of its major points of interest in this region, the US concern and enthusiasm about its ties with Pakistan as a bilateral partner have considerably dwindled. Instead, it now recognizes the threat increasing Pakistan-China cooperation poses to its interests and thus has accelerated its ties with India.

This overview of the Pakistan-US relations demonstrates one important point: ties between the two countries have always been mercurial and unfortunately, we have often been at the receiving end of the stick.

Who Dictates What?

The United States has a long history of exerting its influence on Pakistani politics. This influence can be divided into 2 domains—Pakistan’s foreign relations, and its domestic policies. In wanting to keep close ties with the United States, Pakistan has often had to tweak its foreign policy, a prime example of how the sacrifices made in the Pakistan-US relations have almost always been one-sided.

From not establishing ties with nations the US is not on good terms with (and losing the chance to forge beneficial ties for itself) to creating partnerships solely for the sake of appeasing Uncle Sam, our foreign policy, unfortunately, has a long history of clandestine and sometimes even obvious, US interventions.

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Similarly, Pakistan’s domestic politics too have seen their fair share of meddling and outside influence, as apparent from the recent regime change allegations against the US amidst the current political crisis in Pakistan. But why would any elected Pakistani ruler allow themselves to be coerced into making decisions that could potentially harm their own nation or people?

The answer lies in our dependencies, particularly economic and to some extent our dependency on superpowers like the US in establishing and extending our own global legitimacy and sphere of influence. Like it or not, it has often been that what the US says, goes.

One thing is certain, the Pak-US relations have always been based on divergent interests, which along with the coercive diplomacy employed by the United States, has always resulted in a relationship that is unequal in terms of who gets how much of a say. It seems as if the scales have always tipped in the US’ favor. Why may that be? Well, we need to remember that our nation needs any and all of the economic reinforcement it can get.

The US has always expertly leveraged this dependency and employed a kind of “carrot and stick” approach in getting its demands met. It uses aid packages and programs as a reward for following its whims and taking away these funds as a punishment. Therefore, the only way out is by being free of these dependencies. Only when our economy is a global force to be reckoned with will we be able to afford being treated as an equal partner in our ties with the most developed countries of the world.


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