Should the U.S. and Pakistan Get 'Divorced?'
Image Credit: DOD photo by Chad J. McNeeley

Should the U.S. and Pakistan Get 'Divorced?'


Much has already been said about former Pakistani ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani’s return to the public sphere after being accused of requesting an American intervention in Pakistani politics. The crux of Haqqani’s argument—to be developed in a forthcoming book on U.S.-Pakistan relations, Magnificent Delusions—is that the United States and Pakistan willfully mislead themselves about what their alliance means, leading to cycles of engagement and disenchantment. These cycles have had serious consequences, including feelings of distrust and betrayal, uncooperative behavior, and acts of violence. Haqqani called for a looser relationship—in his terms, a friendship, not a marriage—to break the cycle and enable the two states to cooperate more effectively in areas of common interest.

In some respects, this is not a revolutionary opinion. Pakistani distaste for America’s involvement is well-known, from the neatly-painted signs at Jamaat-e-Islami protests to the widespread nationalist grievance that followed the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Polls suggest that about three quarters of Pakistanis see America as an enemy. American distaste for Pakistan is just as deep. For many Americans, for instance, the mention of Pakistan conjures of images of a flag-burning mob, while among the foreign policy elite it is not rare to hear that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are a more serious danger to America than any that Iran might acquire. The cover of The Atlantic branded Islamabad “The Ally From Hell;” nobody in Haqqani’s audience at the Center for the National Interest last month moved when he asked for a show of hands from those who thought the U.S. should have told the ISI before going after bin Laden.

What is revolutionary is that the call for 'divorce' is now coming from a man who spent three and a half years trying to keep the marriage together, for in spite of all the criticism of Washington and Islamabad’s dysfunctional relationship, few are willing to live with the risks of separation. Many American security officials have grave concerns about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. A close relationship with Pakistan, they reason, allows the U.S. to press for stronger safeguards and, in the event of a radical coup or other crisis, gives Washington more ways to keep the bombs out of the most dangerous hands. The United States has reportedly provided guidance on securing nuclear facilities and creating stringent launch procedures, even though Pakistan has understandably kept Americans away from the physical facilities. American efforts to deepen this cooperation have been rebuffed, but officials have expressed satisfaction with the general safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, and Islamabad is believed to keep its weapons systems partially disassembled, a lower state of readiness than America’s own. However, worries abound that in a nuclear crisis with India, Pakistan’s nuclear forces would disperse from their secured bases to ensure some would survive an Indian strike, and, according to some reports, Pakistan moves some warheads in unmarked vans even in peacetime. Enterprising extremists could seize some of these wandering weapons.

Haqqani argued that America’s worries about Pakistan’s bombs are not realistic and thus do not justify the alliance. After all, he noted, America did not provide assistance in securing the nuclear weapons of its rivals during the tensions of the Cold War, yet the weapons were not accidentally launched or seized by terrorists. Haqqani has a valid point. With or without American involvement, Pakistan’s government has a vital interest in the security of its nuclear weapons. Nuclear irresponsibility could have grave consequences for Pakistan’s international relations, and would increase the risk of accidental war. Pakistan’s leaders would be insane not to take steps to secure their bombs and clarify the chain of command.

However, Haqqani left out America’s intense efforts to secure its rival’s nuclear arsenal after the collapse of the Soviet Union. American leaders correctly judged that the post-communist chaos was an exceedingly risky environment for nuclear storage. It is hard not to see a potential for similar disorder in roiling Karachi or the untamed frontiers. American interests dictate a global concern with nuclear security, a concern that includes Pakistan. Still, alliance is no requisite for cooperation on nuclear security given the convergence of needs. The United States did not become Russia’s ally before it helped Russia secure its bombs. Even if Pakistan were as friendly with America as Canada or Britain, it would still keep Americans away from many elements of its nuclear program.

Haqqani argued that many other areas of cooperation, such as intelligence-sharing, would also survive a divorce. The grounds of these relations are again based on shared interests. While the ISI has some truly loathsome allies, it also has enemies, and America’s powerful electronic intelligence apparatus can eavesdrop on them far better than any Pakistani outfit.

Haqqani’s call will likely go unanswered as long as American troops remain in Afghanistan. U.S. and NATO troops need supplies, and the shortest route is through Pakistan, even though the insurgent groups that ply the border area with suspicious ease give American decision makers daily reminders of divergences between American and Pakistani interests west of the Khyber Pass. This fuels the cycle of engagement and betrayal. Although American leaders will continue to fear a breakdown of order in Pakistan, the pending retreat from Afghanistan may allow the two states to finally have their amicable divorce.

John Allen Gay is program assistant for the Regional Security Program and the Program on American National Security in the Twenty-First Century at the Center for the National Interest

August 8, 2013 at 20:38

Yes. Sometime a bad coin comes in handy !!!!.

August 8, 2013 at 20:37

Yes yes yes !!

usman ahmed
February 7, 2013 at 14:40

         Haqqani was once himself part of so called extremists i.e. govt of Gen Muhammad Zia ul Haq, once he was active member of jamat i islami, when they lost power he jumped in to the band wagon of democrates, he is a  confused man who can change his thinking to gain per advantages. a person who couldnt be sincer with his own country how can he be sincer with another country. Such traitors deserves the treatment of chengez khan, who use to slain traitors, telling them they cant be sincer to him if they were not with their own people. In short he is an insane confused and disloyal person who cannot be depended upon, For money he can do anything, may it be the lowest option like 'indecent proposals'.

September 26, 2012 at 00:33

@ Bankotsu,
Your take on the Americans is right on the spot …. !  Pakistan is vital piece in the Anglo-American geo-strategy in the region …… the Indian leadership possibly reads this correctly … !

September 25, 2012 at 21:30

You know what they say, divorce is cheap and only requires one signature….

September 25, 2012 at 19:39

That is incredibly false. With more than 80% of the Pakistani general populace against the US and with the Pakistani military and intelligence services actively working against US interests, Pakistan can scacely be trusted to mange itself, let along helping the US contain anybody else.

September 25, 2012 at 10:43

Mr Karim, although Pakistan's nuclear weapons are an existential threat, the blame must go to the US for all this mess. Were it not for the US's unrelenting resolve to defeat the USSR in Afghanistan, the world might probably have taken action when Pakistan started to go nuclear. The US triumphed in the cold war, and yet continues to spend on defence as much as during the height of cold war! The vast majority of this is being spent on trying to eliminate it's own creations, namely Saddam, Taliban, Haqqanis etc.
The overt islamization of Pakistan is also due to US's support to Gen.Zia Ul Haq, who reasoned that a militant religious resistence was need to counter the "atheist" communists in Afghanistan. What you sow, so you reap.

September 25, 2012 at 10:30

Mr Singh, India is nobody's mistress. It's stance on Iran is proof enough. Heck, this article isn't even about her, so why bring her into it? As for Pakistan, it's pure delusion to think that the US would count it as an equal ally. Pakistan must realise that it's best interests lie in a stable,peaceful partnership with India and a strong friendship with China.

September 23, 2012 at 14:20

Very true. The difference between the Soviet Union and Pakistan is the Soviet union never harbored, trained, aided and equipped hundreds of terrorist groups as an official strategy of national defense. The KGB for all its dark machination never resorted to advocating blind and fanatical terrorism like Pakistan and Iran.
Any comparison between the Soviet Union and Pakistan is moot given how radical a large section of the Paksitani military is compared to the relative professionalism of the Soviet military. While Soviet generals would rather be bought off by the Americans, the Pakistanis officers and generals would be more inclined to act out of zelous ideological motivations.

September 23, 2012 at 14:14

"devoted" mistress is almost an oxymoron !

September 23, 2012 at 01:00

1. Pakistan's importance to the Americans and the international community hinges on a single issue of nukes. Pakistan, for many years, successfully milked the international community on this very fruitful leverage it has. The US have tried all possible means in the past several decades, to have tangible control on Pakistani behaviour, which ended in failure. No amount of dollars, as ex-ambassador Ann Paterson explained in her Congressional testimony, would change Pakistani behaviour. So did threats and pressure tactics. 
2.  After US withdrawal in 2014, the Americans would possibly have less dependence and more leverage on Pakistan. The free flow of tens of billions of dollars in economic aid, and the military freebies would possibly dry out, putting more pressure on Pakistan.
3.  In case of further deterioration of relations, the US may escalate pressure on Pakistan (a) through the IMF and  World Bank bail outs that Pakistan is used to, receiving from time to time, and  in the extreme situation (b) the threat of declaring Pakistan a "state sponsor of terror", which would mean a range of sanctions that the Pakistani state would possibly not be able to survive. Moreover, the Pakistanis possibly have been clearly told that nuclear blackmail would not bring any more dividends.
4.  The Pakistanis, shrewd as they are, surely have already considered the above possible scenarios in their calculations. They possibly know that they are now left with two options, (a) to step back from the game of brinkmanship , eat humble pie and start afresh on a new path. (b)  take the extreme step of a total break from the American camp, and seal their future with the Chinese .
Ambassador Haqqani would, in a last ditch attempt to bargain on behalf of Pakistan, play the final card, would address his American audience, articulate the same points, and possiby say – " dear American friends, the choice is yours, whether to keep Pakistan, or to lose it to the Chinese."

James Moore
September 22, 2012 at 20:45

The sooner the better and suspend all student visas of pakistani's in The United States.  The government yesterday gave everyone the day off to hit the streets.  Even saw schoolchildren being led by their teachers to go out and chant death to America.  This is a perfidious country and society from top to bottom and the sooner we have no Americans in pakistan and no pakistani's in America the better off all of us will be. . .

September 22, 2012 at 12:13

Pakistan is still useful to the U.S for containing Iran, Russia, China and India, I doubt they will completely abandon this relationship.

Syed Karim
September 21, 2012 at 20:27

Ambassador Haqqani's argument that "America did not provide assistance in securing the nuclear weapons of its rivals during the tensions of the Cold War" is not applicable to Pakistan. The rulers and people of Pakistan have a completely different mindset, which is difficult for anyone from the West to decipher.
Because of its nuclear arsenal, Pakistan poses an existential threat not only to the West, but to human civilization. The statement may seem an exaggeration; events currently unfolding in the Middle East and South Asia is just a glimpse of what is yet to come.

Ravi Singh
September 21, 2012 at 15:51

Yes, America, time to leave your abusive, unstable  Pakistani wife and give some attention to your long-suffering, devoted Indian mistress.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief