Accessibility links

Breaking News

Pakistan: Experts Says U.S.-Pakistan Relations Fragile, Complex

An anti-U.S. demonstration in Peshawar, Pakistan, on 19 January (epa) At various times during the past several decades, the United States has been Pakistan's military and economic benefactor. At other times, Washington has made life difficult for Islamabad. From the late 1960s through the 1980s, for example, the relationship between the two countries was cordial. But in the 1990s, the atmosphere cooled, and Washington even imposed sanctions on Pakistan over its nuclear weapons program. After the attacks of 11 September 2001, the two countries became allies in what U.S. President George W. Bush calls the war against international terrorism. This alliance is said to infuriate many Pakistanis, who believe the United States is merely using their country as a proxy battlefield in its conflict with Al-Qaeda.

WASHINGTON, 26 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The fragile ties between Washington and Islamabad were tested this month by a missile attack against the remote Pakistani village of Damadola near the Afghan border.

The target of the strike on 13 January was Ayman al-Zawahri, Al-Qaeda's second-ranking leader. As it turned out, al-Zawahri was not present, but at least 13 Pakistani villagers were killed.

Since then, Pakistanis have held daily anti-U.S. demonstrations condemning the attack.

Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz met with Bush in Washington on 24 January, but said nothing publicly about the missile strike. Instead, he and Bush spoke of their countries' alliance against Al-Qaeda and Pakistan's gratitude for U.S. aid to victims of the October earthquake.

Truly Representative?

Aziz's behavior in Washington raises the question whether he and Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, truly represent the sentiments of the Pakistani people.

Frederic Grare studies South Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a policy research center in Washington. He tells RFE/RL that most Pakistanis understand their country needs U.S. aid and therefore are willing help the United States against Al-Qaeda.

But Grare thinks Pakistan limits its help, slowing the search for Al-Qaeda suspects on its soil to protract its relationship with the United States in order to keep the aid coming.

"Pakistanis have tried to use the war on terror as a way to renew this alliance with the U.S. -- and successfully so far. So why should they want to give the U.S. everything too quickly when there is a constant mistrust, which goes beyond the cordial relations between the two leaderships?" Grare said. "Deep down there is a fear that the U.S. may let Pakistan down again."

Grare says Pakistan once was formally allied with the United States under the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, or SEATO. But that alliance was dissolved in 1977. Without SEATO, he says, Islamabad has sought to maintain U.S. support any way it can.

Hooked On Aid

"Getting U.S. support has been a constant in Pakistan's history," Grare said. "Yet Pakistan has never succeeded in materializing this alliance in a sustained and long-term basis by some treaty or something of that kind. So what Pakistan has done -- and quite successfully, I must say, and quite smartly -- is use the circumstances to get the support of the U.S."

Stanley Kober agrees that Pakistanis, as a rule, are not strongly anti-American and are aware of the importance of their country's relationship with the United States. Kober studies South Asia at the Cato Institute, another Washington think tank.

Kober says any Pakistani resentment of the United States may have something to do with local support for Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. But it also about what many Pakistanis perceive as a lack of U.S. respect.

"There are some [Pakistanis] who would favor Taliban over the United States," Kober said. "But there are also those who would say, 'Look, we are with you [in the war on terror], but we deserve to be respected. You should treat us as a sovereign country. [If you] don't treat us with respect, then there will be problems in the relationship.' That's quite a bit different, actually, from being sympathetic with the Taliban."

Keeping Options Open

Kober notes that the day before his meeting with Bush, Aziz spoke to a foreign policy forum and twice mentioned that Pakistan now has observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Eurasian group dominated by Russia and China that also includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Pakistani President Musharraf (right) with Russian President Putin (CTK file photo)

These references, Kober says, can only be meant to warn Washington that Pakistan does not consider itself tied exclusively to the U.S. sphere of influence.

"Something I thought that was very interesting when Prime Minister Aziz spoke the other day: A couple of times he referred to Pakistan being accepted as an observer member in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- sort of like, 'We have another option,'" Kober said.

India's Role

The United States also has been showing that it, too, has another option -- India, Pakistan's chief rival.

U.S. businesses, especially high-technology companies, have been investing heavily in India during the past decade. In the meantime, the Bush administration has been pursuing closer ties with Pakistan's rival, ranging from military cooperation to an effort to help New Delhi with civilian nuclear technology.

Bush apparently hopes to consolidate U.S. relations with Pakistan during a trip there in March. But -- exercising his own options again -- Bush also will visit India during the same trip.