United States, Pakistan: The Decade Ahead

The United States has charted out its relationship with Pakistan for the next 10 years. The recently approved multi-billion-dollar U.S. economic and military aid packages for Pakistan, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent visit there, suggest that this Pakistan policy will be much like the one Washington followed for the last 50 years. For their part, Pakistanis are unlikely to change their views of the United States and may even become more hostile.

In the meantime, Islamist militants have escalated their brutal war on the people and the state of Pakistan. The state, with U.S. encouragement and support, may respond with ever greater violence of its own. It is hard to know how much more Pakistan can bear.

A Matter of Principle

President Barack Obama recently signed the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act (more prosaically the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Bill), a five-year, $7.5 billion aid package, with a promise of more to come. It includes language proposing a subsequent tranche of $7.5 billion of aid for 2015 to 2019. There is yet more money for Pakistan in the 2010 defense budget. The Kerry-Lugar-Berman aid comes on top of the more than $15 billion the United States has given Pakistan since 2001, of which more than $10 billion has been military aid.

The new package includes a requirement for the secretary of state annually to certify on behalf of the president that, among other things, Pakistan is:

  • “[C]ontinuing to cooperate…in efforts to dismantle supplier networks relating to the acquisition of nuclear weapons-related materials”
  • “[M]aking significant efforts towards combating terrorist groups…such as ceasing support, including by any elements within the Pakistan military or its intelligence agency, to extremist and terrorist groups,” and
  • Ensuring that its “security forces…are not materially and substantially subverting the political or judicial processes of Pakistan.”

These conditions attracted howls of outrage from Pakistan’s politicians and stern words from its military leaders. The United States immediately backtracked.

Senator John Kerry (D-MA) and Congressman Howard Berman (D-CA), after whom the bill is named, and respectively chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, issued a Joint Explanatory Statement, explaining that the “legislation does not seek in any way to compromise Pakistan’s sovereignty, impinge on Pakistan’s national security interests, or micromanage any aspect of Pakistani military or civilian operations. There are no conditions on Pakistan attached to the authorization of $7.5 billion in non-military aid.”

To make sure that everyone understood that the United States would not impose any penalties on Pakistan if the certification conditions were violated, they emphasized that “this certification could be waived if the determination is made by the Secretary of State in the interests of national security that this was necessary to continue such assistance.”

Backwards into the Future

The backtracking was to be expected. When it comes to Pakistan, there’s a long history of the United States waiving both principles and legal obligation “in the interests of national security.” Pakistan’s government, and especially its army, learned early on to take advantage of this characteristic style of U.S. foreign policy.

The United States has been giving economic and military aid to Pakistan for over 50 years. It started in 1954, as part of a U.S. effort to recruit Pakistan as a Cold War ally. Pakistan was located in a key region, close to both the Soviet Union and the Middle East. Pakistan’s leaders invited and welcomed this alliance. It brought them American political, economic, and military assistance, all of which they hoped to use in their contest with India.

The results were catastrophic. Pakistan’s generals seized power and ruled for over a decade, with generous support from Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. In the United States’ seemingly endless war to defend democracy, nary a word was said about what was actually happening to democracy in Pakistan.

U.S. money helped create a much larger army than Pakistan could afford on its own, equipped it with new American weapons, and trained young Pakistani officers in the United States in modern warfare. Bolstered by their alliance, Pakistan’s generals went to war with India in 1965. It went badly, and America didn’t come to their aid. The only war that mattered to America was the one against the Soviet Union.

The 1970s saw a superpower détente. The U.S.-Pakistan relationship languished, and U.S. aid to Pakistan dried up. The United States began to pressure Pakistan not to follow India in developing nuclear weapons.

But 1979 brought the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, an intervention incited by the United States. The United States needed an ally bordering Afghanistan to help organize and fight its proxy war. Pakistan’s generals were more than happy to oblige. The army had taken power again in 1977 and was under international pressure to restore civilian rule and to give up Pakistan’s nascent nuclear weapons program.

The demands to restore democracy and give up the bomb quieted down. Instead, money and weapons poured in. The Pakistan army bought new American fighter jets and other high-tech weapons that could serve in a war with India. It worked with the United States to raise, train, fund, and equip an international Islamist army to fight in Afghanistan. With American help, Pakistan’s generals learned how to organize guerrilla fighters, how to provide a safe haven, and how to cover their tracks. The rest is history.

There was, however, U.S. legislation banning all but food aid to Pakistan because of its nuclear weapons program. Throughout the 1980s, the U.S. president annually signed a waiver covering this legislation. Once the Soviets were gone, the waiver ended. By then, Pakistan had built the bomb and the A.Q. Khan network was illicitly buying and selling knowledge and technology for a nuclear weapons program. The United States imposed sanctions that lasted a decade.

The army staged another takeover, with General Musharraf seizing power in 1999. Another layer of sanctions were imposed. The United States demanded a restoration of democracy as well as an end to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.

The War This Time

In the wake of September 11, again “in the interests of national security,” the United States lifted all sanctions and aid poured into Pakistan for the third time. Democracy and nonproliferation were set aside.

Kathy Gannon, a veteran reporter on Pakistan for the Associated Press, recently broke the news that out of a total of $8.6 billion in American military aid given to Pakistan between 2002 and 2008, only $500 million was actually used by the Pakistani army to cover its costs in helping the U.S. war in Afghanistan and against the Taliban. Instead, the government used some of the money to buy advanced American weapons for the next war with India.

General Mahmud Durrani, who was Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States under Musharraf explained that “Pakistan insisted and America agreed…we have to strengthen our overall capacity…The money was used to buy and support capability against India.” Money also “went to things like subsidies,” which served to artificially boost Pakistan’s economy and prop up public support for the Musharraf government.

The Pakistan army’s orientation is apparent to U.S. officials. It took U.S. pressure for the army to launch its attacks on the Taliban in Swat and now in South Waziristan. But as one administration official told The New York Times “the perception in the Pakistani military is that this is a surgical strike. They go and clear out Swat and Waziristan and then they can go back to fighting the Indians.”

Nuclear weapons, so long the center of U.S. concerns about Pakistan, are no longer an issue. This is despite Secretary of State Clinton telling the press corps on the airplane to Islamabad that “we always talk about proliferation with everybody that I meet with, and we will certainly raise it with Pakistan.” In her press conference with Pakistan’s foreign minister two days later, Clinton did not once mention the issue of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Under the Bush administration, the United States began helping pay to keep Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, materials, and facilities safe, no questions asked. This will likely continue.

Governments and Peoples

There are, however, more than just government officials and generals who decide what happens as part of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. The Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill claims that the “people of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the United States share a long history of friendship and comity.” There is little evidence of this mutual friendship to be seen in Pakistan.

Pakistani public opinion continues to be deeply hostile toward the United States. The most recent Pew survey, carried out in summer 2009, reported that the “image of the United States is overwhelmingly negative in Pakistan.”

Barely 16% of Pakistanis have a favorable view of the United States. This is an enduring opinion. Almost 70% in the poll saw the United States in an unfavorable light, about the same percentage as was the case in 2007, and even as long ago as 2002. The election of Obama has had little effect in Pakistan, unlike in many other countries. In fact, more Pakistanis claim to have a positive view of Osama bin Laden than of Barack Obama.

But this is only half the story. The Pew poll found that over 60% of Pakistanis think the United States is an enemy of Pakistan. Similarly, an August 2009 Gallup Pakistan poll asked people “Who do you think is the greatest threat for Pakistan?” Given a choice between the Taliban, India, and the United States, almost 60% picked the United States, while less than 20% picked India and around 10% said the Taliban.

In the United States, public opinion has turned against the war in Afghanistan, with almost 60% opposed to sending more troops — and half of these people want American troops brought home. The war is costly in lives, money, and honor. But almost 40% of Americans, and many in the military, want to send more soldiers. For them, victory is the only option, no matter how long it takes or at what cost. To balance these competing demands there are some, including President Obama and Vice-President Biden, who wish to fight this war from afar. They hope to reduce American casualties and the cost of war by increasing the use of special forces, drones, and air strikes.

The Breaking Point

A key source of public hostility in Pakistan toward the United States is the use of missile attacks from unmanned U.S. drones. An October 2009 assessment found 87 reported U.S. missile strikes inside Pakistan since such attacks started in 2004. The tempo is clearly increasing. There were only nine missile attacks between 2004 and 2007. There were 36 attacks in 2008. There were 42 attacks by the end of September 2009.

It is estimated that there have been almost a thousand casualties from these attacks. Some of these casualties were certainly civilians rather than al-Qaeda or Taliban leaders and fighters. The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions Philip Alston has questioned whether “these Predators, are being operated in a framework which may well violate international humanitarian law and international human rights law.” He has, in particular, demanded that “the United States…reveal more about the ways in which it makes sure that arbitrary executions, extrajudicial executions, are not in fact being carried out through the use of these weapons.”

The widespread public outrage in Pakistan against the U.S. missile attacks is not due to the number of casualties or the possible violations of international law. The Taliban, al-Qaeda and affiliated Islamist insurgent groups in Pakistan have killed many more people in their bomb attacks, while the Pakistan army has killed as many if not more in its campaign against these groups.

In October, militants killed over 200 people and injured many hundreds more, including in the massive attack on a market in Peshawar, timed it seems to coincide with Hillary Clinton’s arrival in Pakistan. The Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, which produces monthly estimates on political violence in the country, reported that in September 2009 alone militants killed over 190 people and injured over 550, while the Pakistan army’s operations led to over 370 deaths. The previous six months had a much higher toll, with a total of over 6700 people killed (including those from drone attacks).

This cruel arithmetic seems lost to many in Pakistan, who view this war through an aggrieved nationalism and embattled faith, and a learned hostility both towards their rulers and American policy in the world.

Today, the United States is about as unpopular as al-Qaeda and the Taliban. This is good news in that it shows a dramatic decline in public support and sympathy for al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Pakistanis are finally realizing the terrible consequences of the violent ideology that drives these groups and underlies the brutal war that they have unleashed on the country. Some 80% of Pakistanis now fear Islamic extremism and almost 70% worry that radical Islamist groups might seize power.

Pakistan’s people are besieged. Even though they arebeset by the Islamists’ war on society and state, surveys show that for ordinary Pakistanis the most important issues today are those of bread and butter, of inflation, poverty, and unemployment. They are ruled by an elite driven by self-interest rather than the public good and dominated by an army that is a power unto itself. A domineering, almost colonial structure of national government inflames struggles for provincial and minority rights that have spilled over into demands for secession. The economy caters to the greed of the westernized elite and the military rather than providing for basic needs. Above it all hovers America’s seemingly endless search for national security above all else.

Pakistan, wrote the late Eqbal Ahmad, suffers from five profound crises: the crises of legitimacy, state power, integration, economy, and external relations. To help Pakistan solve any of these problems, the United States needs to delink its assistance from its security policy. Economic assistance cannot be payment to fight America’s war. It must be aid that supports democracy, good governance, decentralization, equitable economic growth, and regional peace above all else. There should be no question of waivers. Channelling American aid to Pakistan exclusively through the United Nations and independent international nongovernmental aid organizations would be one step in this direction.

Zia Mian is a physicist with the Program on Science and Global Security at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus.