Few relationships in the international arena have been as tempestuous as Pakistan's with the United States. While India's ties with America may have gone the roller-coaster way, Washington's engagement with Islamabad has swung like a pendulum. At times, Pakistan and the US have shared a passionately intense arrangement, with Islamabad virtually reduced to a client state of Washington. On other occasions, the separation has been so deep and wide that the possibility of reconciliation has seemed almost impossible. But then, few relationships have been as unlikely or unequal.
What, one might ask, does an economic and military superpower that views itself as being the paragon of democratic and secular values have in common with a poor third world country built on the ideology of religious separatism and whose commitment to democracy has often existed not even on paper? That, however, is the stuff of international politics. And while the odd Marxist ideologue may still pretend otherwise, nations usually pursue each other not because of a shared attachment to common values, but due to a perceived convergence of strategic interests. And the relationship falls apart once either or both sides feel that continued engagement is no longer in their national interest. This zeitgeist of contemporary international relations encapsulates the turbulent US-Pakistan relationship.
As is inevitable in any unequal relationship, the priorities and strategic calculations that motivated Islamabad and Washington to come together during the cold war years were different. For Islamabad the calculus, while being central to its foreign policy, was a rather simple one. India, and mostly always the belligerent relationship that existed with New Delhi, was the determining factor in its relationship with the outside world. As the weaker state, facing a bigger and militarily superior neighbour, Islamabad cultivated Washington and hoped that diplomatic and military support from the US would enable it to balance New Delhi.
For Washington, Pakistan ranked relatively much lower in priority, but the calculations were more complex. Pakistan was a pawn in its global game to contain the bulwark of Soviet communism, with neighbouring India pursuing what many Americans believed was an 'immoral' policy of non-alignment. For a brief period, during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Islamabad almost graduated to being more than just a subaltern in the American grand strategy. Once, however, the cold war was over, Pakistan's importance became marginal, and—in recent assessments—it is its 'nuisance power' rather than its strategic utility that has generally guided American policy towards it.
Ambassador Dennis Kux, who had previously authored the critically-acclaimed study of India-US relations, India and the United States: Estranged Democracies, 1941-1991, has once again produced a masterly account of the US-Pakistan relationship. Comprehensive in scope, tracing events from Pakistan's independence and the initiation of diplomatic relations, to President Clinton's visit to Islamabad in March 2000, Kux's narrative makes for an engrossing and engaging read. Although heavily referenced, and drawing from recently declassified American sources as well as a series of interviews with American and Pakistani policymakers, the book is written, in its easily accessible style, as much for the general reader as for the scholar. Kux has an added advantage since he served in the American embassy in Islamabad in two critical phases, from 1957 to 1959, and again from 1969 to 1971, and was eyewitness to many of the events that led to the blossoming of the relationship.
Kux's account, for instance, of the well-known trip by then National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, to China in July 1971 makes for compelling reading, despite the wealth of new material that has appeared recently on the subject. According to Kux, President Richard Nixon, who had incidentally won political fame because of his tirade against communism, sought Yahya Khan's help as early as 1969 to help Washington make an opening to China. And once China had responded positively, Kissinger was sent to Beijing via Islamabad. The mission was, however, top secret and once in Islamabad Kissinger pretended to be down with a severe case of 'Delhi belly' which required him to rest for a day or two in the mountain resort of Nathiagali. In reality, he was confabulating with Chinese leaders in Beijing and it was this preparatory trip that enabled Nixon to make his famous visit. Even the author, as Kissinger's control officer in Islamabad, was unaware of the trip until it was made public later by the White House.
Any long-term assessment of bilateral ties must finally focus on popular perceptions and public attitudes. The sad reality is that not only is the US seen as an untrustworthy ally by Pakistan's ruling elite, but, as Kux points out, most Pakistanis believe that the US discarded Islamabad 'like a used Kleenex' after the Afghan war. However, and in this may lie the crux of the problems of Pakistan, the US and much of the international community seem today to be echoing what US secretary of state Dean Rusk wrote after his 1963 trip to South Asia: "Fear, distrust and hatred of India means that we cannot rely on Pakistan to act rationally and in what we think would be its own interests."
(Source: Outlook, 17/09/01)