Features | Security | South Asia

The US is Losing Pakistan

Ties between the US and Pakistan were already strained over differences on Afghanistan. The hit on Osama bin Laden might have been the final straw.

By Patrick Seale for

The US and Pakistani governments seem to be heading for a divorce full of recriminations. So great are the divergent objectives and lack of trust between them that Pakistan seems to be contemplating moving out of the United States’ orbit altogether and into China’s embrace.

The US decision, without it seems informing Pakistan nor seeking its help, to send a hit team deep inside Pakistani territory to kill Osama Bin Laden may have proved to be the last straw. Pakistan’s leaders are furious. Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, for example, declared that any future action violating Pakistan’s sovereignty would lead to a complete review of military and intelligence co-operation with the United States.

Added to this, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani expressed fulsome praise for China on a visit to Beijing late last month. China, he said, was a source of inspiration for the Pakistani people, while Chinese premier Wen Jiabao declared that China and Pakistan will remain forever good neighbours, good friends, good partners and good brothers.

As well as co-operating in the military, banking, civil nuclear and other fields, Pakistan wants China to build a naval base and maintain a regular naval presence at the port at Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province, something that has alarmed the United States, India, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Worried at Pakistan’s drift away from Washington, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton hurried to Pakistan for a few hours on May 27 in an attempt to patch things up, but apparently with little success. Why? Because the row over the killing of bin Laden is only the latest chapter in a long narrative of mutual misperceptions.

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CIA missile attacks by unmanned drones against alleged terrorist targets inside Pakistan invariably end up killing civilians, and arousing furious anti-American sentiment. The Pakistani Parliament has denounced these strikes as a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and demanded a permanent halt to them. Some parliamentary members warned that Pakistan could cut supply lines to US forces in Afghanistan if drone attacks continued.

The extent of hostility towards the United States was already evident following an incident on January 27, when Raymond A Davis, a covert CIA officer, shot and killed two Pakistanis in a crowded street in Lahore. Pakistani popular opinion wanted him hanged, and it was only with great difficulty that the United States managed to secure his release.

But by then the idea was already taking root in Pakistan that the United States was deploying a secret army against Islamic militants in the country. The Pakistani Army has demanded that the number of US military personnel in the country be reduced. Relations between the CIA and Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence directorate (ISI), headed by Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, are said to be tense.

At the heart of the US-Pakistani estrangement lies a profound disagreement about everything to do with Afghanistan, especially how to deal with radical factions, such as the Taliban. Not content with having eliminated bin Laden, the United States wants to hunt down and destroy any remnants of al-Qaeda and other militant groups, whether in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and even in places further afield like Yemen. Obsessed with the danger of terrorist violence, the United States has been unwilling to recognise that Arab and Muslim hostility toward it springs mainly from its own catastrophic wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan itself, with their heavy toll of civilian casualties, and from its blind support for Israel.

Suspecting Pakistan of complicity with Muslim radicals, the United States insists that it should join in with the US anti-terrorist campaigns. It would like Pakistan to break relations with Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Afghan Taliban; with the Jalaluddin Haqqani network (now run by Jalaluddin’s sons, Sirajuddin and Badruddin); and with the Lashkar-e-Taiba — a militant group considered responsible for the devastating Mumbai attack of 2008.

But Pakistan sees the matter very differently. Created as a refuge for Indian Muslims after the 1947 partition of the subcontinent, it feels under permanent threat mainly from India. Many in its government consider that its national interest demands that it maintain close links with the Taliban and other radical Afghan Muslim networks as useful allies once US forces go home, as they will sooner or later. Indeed, troop withdrawals are due to start this July.

Pakistan is determined to exercise a degree of control over Afghanistan for two reasons. First, to prevent the realisation of the Pashtun dream of a ‘Greater Pakhtunistan’ astride the Durand Line, since this would mean the loss of Pakistan’s Pashtun-inhabited Northwest Frontier Province. The fact that Afghanistan still refuses to recognise the validity of the Durand Line, which divides the Pashtuns, keeps such Pakistani fears alive.

Pakistan is still smarting from the loss of Kashmir to India in the 1947-48 war, followed by the loss of East Pakistan — now Bangladesh — in the 1971 war. It dreads further amputations of its territory. Rather than pressing Pakistan to sever its ties with militant groups, the United States would be better advised to quieten Pakistani fears by putting pressure on India to resolve the Kashmir dispute.

The second reason why Pakistan is determined to keep Afghanistan within its own orbit is to prevent it falling under India’s influence, as this would result in Pakistan being encircled. Islamabad sees Afghanistan as its ‘strategic depth.’ The U.S.-Pakistani disagreement over Afghanistan serves to reinforce a deep-seated Pakistani suspicion that the United States isn’t a faithful partner, but one that abandons its allies once they cease to be useful. Throughout the 1980s, the United States — with help from Pakistan and funding from Saudi Arabia — recruited, armed and trained tens of thousands of Muslim volunteers to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. But once the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, the United States lost interest in these mujahedin. Finance for them was cut off. They were abandoned to their fate. Many weren’t wanted in their home countries. Osama bin Laden recruited them into al-Qaeda.

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The paradox is that Pakistan has in recent years been pressured to do US bidding in making war on militant Islamic groups — in its own country if not in Afghanistan — and has paid dearly for it. Not only have military operations against these militants been extremely costly for Pakistan in men and treasure, but they have also provoked lethal retaliation from groups such as Tahrik-e-Taliban in the form of suicide bombings and other attacks. Pakistan’s internal security situation is now dire, and its economy gravely damaged. It’s wrestling with a soaring budget deficit, frequent power cuts and a growing danger of political and social chaos.

On May 22-23, a militant team raided Pakistan’s Mehran Naval Station in the heart of Karachi, the country’s economic capital, killing 12 security officers and destroying two high-tech Lockheed Martin maritime surveillance aircraft. The militants said the raid was to avenge bin Laden’s killing. Interior Minister Rehman Malik concluded that the country was in ‘a state of war.’

Pakistan thus finds itself under pressure from the United States to fight the militants, and under attack from the militants for waging the United States’ war for it. The United States gives Pakistan, a country of 180 million people, $3 billion in annual aid, rather less than it gives to Israel, with a population of 7 million. Little wonder that some leading Pakistanis have come to think that their country would be better off without the exorbitant encumbrance of this American connection.

Patrick Seale is UK-based writer.