For much of its short seventy-year history, Pakistan has managed to thoroughly mismanage its strategic relationships with great power patrons, regional competitors, and non-state clients. It has waged and lost four wars with a larger and more powerful India, supported terrorist organizations that have destabilized Afghanistan and conducted deadly attacks in neighboring India, and alienated its long-time American ally. Only Pakistan’s geopolitical position as a land bridge between the Indian Ocean and Central Asia has kept U.S.-Pakistani relations from severing completely, due to the need to ship military supplies and equipment through Pakistani territory to land-locked Afghanistan. Otherwise, there is little love lost between Pakistanis and Americans; polling indicates three-quarters of Pakistanis view the United States as an enemy, while only 10 percent of Americans trust Pakistan. Never have supposed allies hated each other so much.
For the first twenty-five years of the Cold War, Pakistan was an important and valued American ally. The two nations signed a mutual defense treaty in 1954, Pakistani officers trained in U.S. military schools, and the United States built an airbase in Peshawar for use by U-2 spy planes—including the one used in Gary Francis Powers’ ill-fated mission on May 1, 1960, which ended with his capture when a Soviet surface-to-air missile destroyed his aircraft. U.S. leaders viewed the Pakistani military as an important anti-communist bulwark in South Asia. This close relationship chilled considerably with the election of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who as president and prime minister led Pakistan into the Movement of Non-Aligned Countries in the 1970s.
Not to be denied power, Chief of the Army Staff General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq took control of the government in a coup in July 1977. Zia launched a thorough Islamization of Pakistan, turning the country into a center for Islamic jurisprudence. If U.S. policy makers were alarmed about these developments, their concerns went unnoticed amidst the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution in 1979. The former event in particular led to massive U.S. support for Zia’s regime and its role as a conduit for military aid to Mujahedeen guerrillas fighting the Red Army in Afghanistan—a period encapsulated by the book and popular movie “Charlie Wilson’s War.” Provided Pakistan proved useful as a Cold War ally, U.S. political and military decision makers seemed unconcerned with the country’s tilt towards political Islam.
Pakistan’s short-lived golden age of strategic triumph came with the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989, the fall of Mohammad Najibullah’s communist government in Kabul in 1992, and the triumph of the Taliban in the ensuing Afghan civil war. With a friendly regime ensconced in Kabul, Pakistani leaders no longer feared strategic encirclement by India. The detonation of a nuclear device in 1998 announced the arrival of Pakistan into the elite club of nuclear-armed states, creating a deterrent against an attack by India. Another bloodless military coup a year later brought into power Chief of Army Staff General Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan was secure.
The success lasted less than half a decade.
The terror attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, impelled the United States to invade Afghanistan in an effort to bring al-Qaeda leaders to justice. Osama bin Laden escaped the net in the near term, but the Taliban rapidly fell from power, its remnants retreating into Pakistan. With U.S. President George W. Bush telling foreign leaders “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” Musharraf decided he was with the United States—at least for the time being. He allowed U.S. logistics to transit Pakistan and a limited number of U.S. drone strikes to target terrorists inside his country. His cooperation earned for Pakistan the coveted designation of major non-NATO ally in 2004. U.S. humanitarian support in the wake of a deadly earthquake in 2005 also earned a great deal of goodwill among the Pakistani people. It would not last.
But the Pakistani intelligence services, or ISI, were playing a duplicitous game. While cooperating with the United States to target terrorists bent on overturning the regime in Islamabad, the ISI covertly supported the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and other groups that conducted attacks in Afghanistan, Kashmir, and India. U.S. officials were suspicious enough of Pakistani trustworthiness that they refrained from informing Islamabad of the SEAL team raid (Operation Neptune Spear) on May 2, 2011, to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, who after nearly a decade of intensive intelligence work had been located in a large compound near Abbottabad, just a mile away from the Pakistan Military Academy. Although the raid was successful, the political fallout lingers.
Incensed by the U.S. intrusion on its sovereignty, the Pakistani government closed the logistics routes across the country in the wake of Operation Neptune Spear. The Pakistani public, already angered by a large increase in drone strikes in Pakistan by the Obama administration, quickly turned their ire against the United States. By 2012 three-quarters of Pakistanis viewed the United States as an enemy. Americans were just as angry, seeing the location of public enemy #1 in Abbottabad as proof of Pakistani collusion with al-Qaeda. Overt or tacit Pakistani cooperation with the Taliban prolonged the Afghanistan conflict, now the longest war in U.S. history. The relationship between the United States and Pakistan deteriorated.
President Trump played on Pakistani fears in his 2017 speech on his administration’s Afghan policy. “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond,” the president stated, calling out Islamabad for its bad behavior. He continued, “We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately. No partnership can survive a country’s harboring of militants and terrorists who target U.S. service members and officials. It is time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order, and to peace.” Trump then laid the hammer down: “Another critical part of the South Asia strategy for America is to further develop its strategic partnership with India—the world’s largest democracy and a key security and economic partner of the United States. We appreciate India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan, but India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development. We are committed to pursuing our shared objectives for peace and security in South Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region.”
If any statement would get Islamabad’s attention, it was one that called on India to have a greater role in contributing to stability in Afghanistan. Trump was following his predecessor Teddy Roosevelt’s advice—he spoke softly and wielded a very big stick. But in his first tweet of 2018, the president decided to unleash the equivalent of a diplomatic scream: “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” In response to the president’s angry tweet, the Pakistani Ministry of Defence launched one of its own: “Pak as anti-terror ally has given free to US: land & air communication, military bases & intel cooperation that decimated Al-Qaeda over last 16yrs, but they have given us nothing but invective & mistrust. They overlook cross-border safe havens of terrorists who murder Pakistanis.” The U.S.-Pakistani relationship had reached a new low.
The Bush and Obama administrations both used carrots in the form of $33 billion in military and economic aid to attempt to convince the Pakistani government to cooperate with the United States and end its assistance to the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network. As those carrots have not worked, the Trump administration has resorted to sticks, suspending military aid in an attempt to make Pakistan cease its support for insurgent and terror groups bent on overturning the U.S.-backed regime in Kabul. That attempt will also likely fail. Pakistan’s goal is to return to the golden age of the late-1990s, when it had attained strategic depth in Afghanistan by keeping India out, the Taliban in, and the Northern Alliance down. This policy is unchanged even after the resumption of civilian rule in 2008. Islamabad is uncomfortable with the current situation, in which the Afghan government refuses to do its bidding, India has an embassy and four consulates in country, and the Taliban is locked out of power.
U.S. pressure has its limits, as the United States requires Pakistani cooperation to use the lines of communication running through the country. (The Northern Distribution Route through Central Asia has lessened, but not eliminated, U.S. dependence on Pakistani ground and airspace.) Pakistani leaders will not jettison the Taliban, the one ally they have remaining in the Afghan conflict. Whether Pakistan and the Taliban would settle for a power-sharing agreement to end hostilities remains to be seen. In the meantime, Islamabad has responded to U.S. coercion and threats by reaching out to America’s strategic competitors, Russia and China. But Pakistan’s relations with them also has limits. Pakistan would be unwise to jettison its long-term relationship with the United States, which is still the strongest global power and maintains enormous capacity to influence security matters in South Asia.
In the meantime, the United States and Pakistan are locked in an acrimonious strategic relationship that neither party can afford to completely sever. If an urban dictionary is looking for an example to define the word “frenemies,” the relationship between the United States and Pakistan fits to a tee.
Peter Mansoor, colonel, US Army (retired), is the General Raymond E. Mason, Jr. Chair of Military History at Ohio State University. A distinguished graduate of West Point, he earned his doctorate from Ohio State University. He assumed his current position after a twenty-six-year career in the US Army that included two combat tours, culminating in his service as executive officer to General David Petraeus in Iraq. He is the author of The GI Offensive in Europe: The Triumph of American Infantry Divisions, 1941–1945 and Baghdad at Sunrise: A Brigade Commander’s War in Iraq. His latest book, Surge: My Journey with General David Petraeus and the Remaking of the Iraq War, a history of the surge in Iraq in 2007– 8, was published by Yale University Press in 2013.