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U.S.-Pakistan Ties on Brink

With talk of possible coup swirling around Pakistan, the U.S. looks close to losing a key strategic partner.

The Obama administration is facing an increasingly thorny foreign policy challenge, one which could seriously derail the U.S. grand strategy in Central Asia as it struggles to stabilize a volatile Afghanistan: estrangement from Pakistan.

With rising discontent among the Pakistani political elites, and with growing popular anger aimed at the United States, Washington looks on the verge of losing another vital ally. A decade of compliance and subservience, coupled with endemic corruption and a severe economic downturn, has left the Pakistani leadership facing the same fate as other fallen pro-U.S. leaders across the Middle East and beyond, from Iran’s Shah in 1979 to Arab autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia in 2011.

But Pakistan is uniquely important, not only for its sheer size, geopolitical position, and powerful army, but also because of its possession of one of the world’s nuclear arsenals.

For decades, Pakistan has been the backbone of U.S. strategic designs in the region. During the Cold War, Islamabad was the United States’ main “buffer” against Soviet expansionism. In the 1980s, Pakistan’s unswerving cooperation was a key element of U.S. efforts in pushing the Soviets out of Afghanistan. It was precisely this close strategic partnership that encouraged the United States to turn a blind eye to Pakistan’s burgeoning nuclear program and A.Q. Khan’s proliferation shenanigans.

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In the post-Cold War era, Pakistan’s continued pivotal role discouraged any serious censure in the wake of Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s military takeover, which ended, albeit temporarily, an era of unstable and corrupt civilian politics. Musharraf was anyway simply exposing the true nature of the Pakistani political system, namely the intractable dominance of the military establishment, which views itself as the guardian of the Pakistani state.  

The military is the very backbone of Pakistan and exerts influence over all major organs of the state, especially foreign and domestic security policy. It receives around a quarter of the nation’s budget, and it has historically blocked any attempts by civilian politicians to change the overall make-up of the country’s domestic political system and foreign policy architecture. When Nawaz Sharif contemplated normalizing relations with New Delhi, he was ousted in a coup. The military was also swift to eject Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, after he allegedly prepared a memo calling for U.S. assistance over a possible coup. Zardari’s plans to improve economic relations with India might seal a similar fate for him.

The post-9/11 era witnessed a renaissance in Pakistani-U.S. relations as the United States turned to Islamabad in the War on Terror.  But this was never likely to last with the profound strategic gap that divides the two nations.

While Washington’s main interests have centered on eliminating extremist elements in the region and creating a stable, pliable, and democratic Afghanistan, Islamabad’s calculations were focused on counter-balancing an increasingly ascendant India. Ultimately, Pakistan has been mostly concerned with leveraging its growing alliance with the United States (and enjoying around $20 billion inmilitary aid in the process) to increase its strategic depth in Afghanistan.

Washington seems to have overlooked this crucial security dilemma. Determined to exact justice and neutralize extremist foes, the Bush and Obama administrations worked on the underlying assumption that Pakistan would be content with Washington’s aid and strategic support even as the battle against extremist elements intensified.

But the double-game played by Pakistan – or at least elements of its intelligence agency – has become untenable. The U.S. felt betrayed when Osama Bin Laden was found for years to have been residing in the vicinity of Pakistan’s elite military academy. The revelation no doubt played a significant part in Adm. Mike Mullen’s comments before the U.S. Senate that Pakistan was using “extremism as an instrument of policy.”

The killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a U.S. air strike late last month – and Pakistan’s closing of U.S. and NATO supply routes – was therefore only the latest development in an increasingly tense relationship.

But there has been more. Pakistan’s apparent tilt toward Iran has attracted growing scrutiny from Washington. The proposed IPI pipeline, which passes through Pakistan, could significantly strengthen Iran’s position in Asian gas and energy markets. This, in turn, would further deepen Tehran’s influence in Central and South Asia, while ameliorating the impact of sanctions on the country’s increasingly beleaguered economy. Moreover, recent years have also witnessed an increasingly cozy relationship between Tehran and Islamabad, animated by a growing number of bilateral agreements and high-level diplomatic interaction.

Strategically, both countries share an interest in stabilizing the porous borders in the restive areas of Balochistan, while Pakistan’s growing economic woes have enabled Iran to emerge as an important supplier of electricity, energy, and even foreign aid in moments of crisis.  

The United States’ growing embrace of India as an emerging economic and political powerhouse, meanwhile, has annoyed Pakistan. In addition to the sale of U.S. military hardware and provision of civilian nuclear technology assistance to India, President Barack Obama’s endorsement of New Delhi’s bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council also won’t have gone down well in Pakistan.

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But Pakistan is also losing interest in supporting U.S. efforts in Afghanistan for domestic reasons. Islamabad is increasingly finding itself at the receiving end of a growing domestic, extremist insurgency against the regime. The country’s alliance with the United States has created a considerable popular backlash, which has only intensified in light of increasingly deadly American drone attacks. The latest Pew Survey suggests that only 12 percent of Pakistanis hold a favorable view of the United States, making the country among the most anti-American of nations.

Most alarmingly, there has been growing speculation over the danger of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of emboldened extremist forces. The country is therefore grappling simultaneously with political instability, bombings, a potential economic meltdown, natural disasters and the threat of its nuclear arsenal being compromised. Against this bleak backdrop it’s hardly surprising that Pakistan’s military might, eventually, decide to step-in.

Given the depth of the United States’ strategic anxieties in the region, the ongoing estrangement with Pakistan is clearly a dangerous blow to U.S.  interests. In the long-run, a further deterioration in ties could spell the end of the alliance and prompt Pakistan to turn to China, Iran, or Russia if it deems this in its national interests.

Washington will need to tread carefully if it is to have any hope of salvaging this fading alliance.  

Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst focusing on international security and development issues. His articles have been featured or cited in Foreign Policy in Focus, Asia Times, UPI, the Transnational Institute and the Tehran Times, among other publications. He can be reached at: [email protected].