"The Evolving US-Pakistani Relationship"

Rachel Fairclough Zirkle

SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 2 (Summer 2010)





Note: This article was written before the recent massive flooding in Pakistan. Also, the article uses in-text citations; full references are provided at the end of the article.


The fundamental national security goal of the United States is to keep America and American interests safe. In pursuit of these goals, the U.S. has waged war on terrorism, specifically in Afghanistan, where U.S. security is challenged by al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The intent of U.S. involvement is to root out terrorists, establish democracy, and stabilize the region in order to obtain security for the U.S. However, in dealing with Afghanistan, Pakistan has become a primary focus because of its close ties with the former Taliban regime and its dangerous capacity to become destabilized by Afghanistan. Pakistani assistance and stability is extremely valuable to the success of U.S. goals and intentions in the Middle East. In order to achieve success with the current national security agenda in the region, the U.S. and Pakistan must maintain the partnership they have established.   


While our focus will be the relations between the United States and Pakistan, one pressing catalyst to the partnership is Afghanistan. When the World Trade Center towers collapsed on September 11th, 2001, it was only a matter of time before the U.S. discovered who was behind the insidious act. The terrorist group al-Qaeda claimed responsibility from their base in Afghanistan. The then-current government in Afghanistan, the Taliban, was found protecting and supporting al-Qaeda to a degree that warranted the state becoming a target for U.S. retribution. In a matter of weeks, Operation Enduring Freedom exploded on Afghan soil as the U.S. sought the destruction of the Taliban regime and the annihilation of extremist groups seeking to target U.S. interests. Even though the Taliban regime was swiftly defeated, war still shrouds the state as the U.S. continues to try and eliminate all Taliban insurgents and develop democracy in hopes of stability. The country is still considered to be extremely unstable under the recently reelected- and generally corrupt - government headed by President Hamid Karazi.

Pakistan became a major player in this drama for many reasons, including the obvious fact that it shares a fluid border with Afghanistan. While the U.S- led coalition combed the Afghan countryside for all traces of al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization stealthily moved its primary base to Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) located along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. The FATA makes a particularly good safe haven because it is “designated as tribal areas [which are] not subject to normal government jurisdiction,” while being largely considered as nothing more than a “sociological curiosity” (Military: Pakistan's FATA Policy, par. 1, 3). An anomaly in military-dominated Pakistan, the FATA is home to Taliban rebels. Here, Pakistan’s own contingency of Taliban rebels offers refuge to Afghanistan Taliban members. These Taliban strongholds near the Afghan border have slowly begun to infiltrate the rest of Pakistan; Pakistani stability has thus begun to teeter (Pakistan: Children of the Taliban, 2009). What began as a mission to secure Afghanistan has slipped into a simultaneous mission to stabilize Pakistan. If terrorism is allowed to breed in either state, the region is likely to fall to the ever-passionate extremists who present a major threat to American security.

The connection between this Pakistani domestic tension, the chaos in Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s subsequent shift in relations with the Taliban can be difficult to follow. It is best understood by probing the history of Pakistan, the colliding point of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the origins of the Taliban. When the British dissolved their Indian empire, they “left India divided in two. The two countries [that formed from the partition] were founded on the basis of religion, with Pakistan as an Islamic state and India as a secular one” (Keen, 1998, par. 1). The division was deemed necessary as conflict escalated in India between Muslims and the Hindu majority; however, an official boundary did little to alleviate the conflict and there have since been multiple wars and heated violence between India and Pakistan (Keen, 1998).

Understanding the nuances of the Indian threat is a critical part to analyzing Pakistani foreign policy. For example, Pakistan opted to develop a nuclear weapons program instead of continuing to receive U.S. military aid, even though the American aid helped the Pakistanis achieve the status of the eighth-largest armed force in the world (Background Note: Pakistan, 2009). The rivalry with India led Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to promise in 1965 that “if India built nuclear weapons Pakistan would too, ‘even if we have to eat grass’” (Mian, 2001, par. 5). In a Pakistani cost/benefit analysis, the sanctions that would deny military assistance from the U.S. were outweighed by the threat of India obtaining an atomic bomb in 1974. After covertly beginning a program in the 1970’s, Pakistan finally became nuclear in the 1990’s “in response to India’s May 1998 tests” (Background Note: Pakistan, 2009, par. 38).

Another element of conflict stemming from Pakistan’s history is the unusual alliances triggered by the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War. India signed a formal treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union while Pakistan grew closer to the U.S. (India's First Bomb: 1967-1974, 2001). These ties manifested themselves more fully in the Soviet-Afghan war that started in 1979. Pakistan and the U.S. supported the mujahideen (freedom-fighters) of Afghanistan who were rebelling against the pro-Soviet Democratic Republic of Afghanistan for personal reasons. Pakistan felt it worthwhile to help the mujahideen namely because the Soviets had Indian ties. The U.S. felt it worthwhile because the situation represented a proxy war against the Soviets, which was a primary focus during the Cold War era.

Therefore, Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) and the U.S’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) helped “arm, train, and fund the mujahideen” (West, 2001, par. 21). When the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, the country was in shambles because of the warring mujahideen groups. The intervening confusion presented the ISI the opportunity “to wield power in the region by fostering a previously unknown Kandahari student movement, the Taliban” (West, 2001, par. 21). By funding, supporting, and cultivating the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Pakistan insured Afghani Taliban assistance should a conflict with India arise, while also preventing another unwanted regime from taking root in their Afghan next door neighbor. Newly declassified documents from the National Security Archive solidify the link between Pakistan and the Afghani Taliban regime, which held pertinent consequences for Pakistan that fuel the conflict today. These documents show:  

“the use of Taliban terrorist training areas in Afghanistan by Pakistani-supported militants in Kashmir, as well as Pakistan’s covert effort to supply Pashtun troops from its tribal regions to the Taliban cause in Afghanistan – effectively forging and reinforcing Pashtun bonds across the border and consolidating the Taliban’s severe form of Islam throughout Pakistan’s frontier region” (Elias, 2007, par. 3).
The creation of the Taliban sealed the current fate of the FATA of Pakistan even though at the time it was only a minimal concern. In January of 1997, a cable was sent from the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan that noted “for Pakistan, a Taliban-based government in Kabul would be as good as it can get in Afghanistan” and even though “the Taliban brand of Islam…might infect Pakistan,” it was “apparently a problem for another day” (Elias, 2007, par. 5). As seen by the current instability caused by the Taliban, which has led to the exporting of terrorism worldwide, it has now become that “other day.” After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, Pakistan denounced support of the Taliban and agreed to assist the U.S. in the war against terrorism, leading to a waiver of former sanctions and resumed military assistance, culminating in the now existing partnership (Background Note: Pakistan, 2009).

Current Policy

On March 27, 2009, official remarks by U.S. President Barack Obama were released describing a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan (Obama, 2009). By opening his remarks with an ominous reminder that al-Qaeda is still active from its safe haven in Pakistan and still has hopes for reclaiming Afghanistan, Obama fuses Afghanistan and Pakistan into a paired endeavor that demands U.S. support (Obama, 2009).  While the President calls for increased resources in civilian and military efforts to provide training, funding, and support in both countries, it is clear that Afghanistan is viewed as a problem that needs fixing and Pakistan is to be portrayed as a partner that needs strengthening. Obama encourages this perspective through rhetoric such as, “Pakistan needs our help in going after al-Qaeda” as well as by describing the annual five year financial aid package of 1.5 billion dollars as a way to make Pakistan “a stronger partner in destroying these [terrorist] safe havens” (emphasis added; Obama, 2009, par. 16, 20). This direct support to the people of Pakistan is designed to strengthen their democracy, a tactical move by the U.S. to stabilize Pakistan and achieve success in Afghanistan through partnership.

Weaknesses of the Current Policy

While partnership is meant to be positive, sometimes the relationship is more parasitic. Several weaknesses that plague the current policy include its lack of support, funding, reliability, and effectiveness, as well as the presence of different agendas. Perhaps the largest weakness of this policy is the Pakistani people’s own rejection of it. A survey conducted by the International Republican Institute (a U.S. government financed group), revealed in September 2009 that “more Pakistanis – an overwhelming majority – [continue] to reject the United States as a partner to fight militancy in their country” (Perlez, 2009, par. 1). Similarly, “80 percent of the respondents said they were opposed to the United States assistance in Pakistan’s fight against terrorism” (Perlez, 2009, par. 10).  This poll highlights the anti-American attitude that is held by the majority of Pakistani citizens. Partnering with the U.S. has not boded well for Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zaradi, who received only a 25% approval rating in the survey (Perlez, 2009). In another survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2009, they found that “64% of the public regards the U.S. as an enemy, while only 9% describe it as a partner” (Pew Global Attitudes Project, 2009, par. 3).

The dislike of the Pakistani people for the U.S. is not mitigated by the aid Washington proudly offered Pakistan in its new strategy remarks at the end of March 2009.  A sum of 1.5 billion dollars annually for five years was received with disdain by Pakistani politicians and news media as being far too little (Perlez, 2009). Pakistanis vehemently feel the sympathy sum should be larger, especially when the price they have paid for helping the U.S. has accumulated in 1,500 dead soldiers, thousands of wounded soldiers, and an unnumbered amount of killed and wounded civilians (Pakistan: Children of the Taliban, 2009). In comparison to the Pakistani soldier total casualties, the U.S. Department of Defense shows the total of U.S. military casualties in Operation Enduring Freedom - as of March 29, 2010 - as 942; this number is comprised of all U.S. military casualties in and around Afghanistan, including casualties in Pakistan and Uzbekistan (OEF Casualty Status, 2010). The discrepancy in casualties does little for lessening the Pakistani contempt for American meddling.

Furthermore, the estranged relations between the Taliban and Pakistani government after 9/11 have led to an influx of suicide bombings in Pakistan, which fuels the lack of support for U.S. partnership. Qari Abdullah, a Taliban fighter in Pakistan, describes the situation to an interviewer as, “‘We never used to fight against Pakistan, because we thought the Army were Muslims…But when they [the Pakistani Army] started bombing us, we had to do jihad against them’” (Pakistan: Children of the Taliban, 2009, par. 50). When this same interviewer visited a wounded Pakistani Army soldier, she asked him why there was such hatred between the Taliban and the Army. The wounded soldier’s response pinpointed the “American policies we adopted; that’s why the Taliban are angry at the Army. That’s why we are suffering” (Pakistan: Children of the Taliban, 2009, par. 34). The responses seem to incur the feeling that partnering with the Americans has somehow detracted from the Muslim nature and authority of Pakistan, consequentially attracting terrorist activity toward the state.

An example of an American policy that has been adopted in Pakistan that incites further lack of support is Pakistan’s assistance on missile attacks using American drone aircraft. As reported in April 2009, there were over “30 U.S. missile strikes in the tribal areas [of Pakistan] in the last year” (Pakistan: Children of the Taliban, 2009, par. 28). Then, almost a year later in February 2010, the missile strikes to Pakistan’s tribal regions were reported to have increased to “55 times [over the] last year” (Is Barack Obama Tough Enough, 2010, par. 3). The intensified number of attacks has quantitatively shown an increased cooperation with U.S. forces; Pakistani officials provide intelligence for militant targets and allow U.S. drones in Pakistani territory. The cooperation is not necessarily seen as positive though. A survey by the International Republican Institute reports the lack of support for the American policy on the part of Pakistanis; “76 percent of the respondents were opposed to Pakistan partnering with the United States on missile attacks against extremists by American drone aircraft” (Perlez, 2009, par. 11). The civilian casualties that accompany a missile strike create a stark link to Pakistani rejection of American tactics such as drone strikes. It also does not help that the U.S. is specifically seeking help to track down certain al-Qaida and Afghan Taliban leaders who are less of a priority for the Pakistanis; differing agendas in drone strikes exacerbates Pakistani levels of partnership support (Pakistan's Military Rejects US Aid Bill, 2009).

While some basic principles, like obtaining state security, are the same between the U.S. and Pakistan, on many issues the countries are not on the same page. Nothing is simple, even the exchange of money. Many people in Pakistan see the financial aid as “a sign of growing – and unwanted – U.S. influence” (Pakistan's Military Rejects US Aid Bill, 2009, par. 14). Indeed, the funds have been described by Obama himself as a means to strengthen democracy in Pakistan, which is not a top priority for people within the Pakistan (Obama, 2009). Critics in Pakistan therefore quickly see the details of the partnership as an attempt to safeguard American interests instead of representing equal efforts to eradicate a problem among partners.

Specifically, the aid to Pakistan is for civilian purposes, destined to build roads, schools, and hospitals in an effort to strengthen the government of Pakistan. This plays to U.S. desires to create a strong, stable partner in the government of Pakistan that will help accomplish U.S. national goals such as defeating terrorism. Yet Pakistan is a country that is subject to de facto military rule – despite what the U.S. wishes – and whether attempting to downplay the military’s role in governance will be a strategy that produces stability in the Pakistani government remains uncertain. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center indicates that 86 percent of the Pakistani people feel the military is a good influence on the country, while favorable views of President Zardari have dropped to 32 percent (Pew Global Attitudes Project, 2009). This poll represents the difficulties that face the U.S. as it tries to shift the spot light to governmental power. Some analysts even credit a healthy portion of the rejectionism by the public to the Pakistani Army, saying it is their way of “sending a message to the Pakistani and U.S. governments about the limits of civilian control in a country that has been subject to military rule” for about half its history (Pakistan's Military Rejects US Aid Bill, 2009, par. 6).

Akin to the Pakistani rejection of U.S. partnership, is the American citizens’ own waning support for the war in Afghanistan. Try as the Obama administration might, the majority of Americans no longer see the Afghanistan war worth fighting. In a time of economic crisis at home, few Americans are interested in injecting more capital and resources overseas. In a Gallup Poll taken by USA Today, 89 percent of the U.S. felt it was right to send military forces to Afghanistan in 2001; in 2009 this percentage had dropped to 52 percent, with 42 percent of Americans feeling that the war was a mistake (Brook, 2009).  As poverty increases along with the unemployment rate in the U.S. homeland, fewer Americans feel inclined to give away billions of dollars to eradicate poverty and shore up democracy elsewhere.

Lack of confidence in Pakistan’s reliability as an ally is another probable weakness of the partnership policy. As previously mentioned, the Taliban is largely Pakistan’s own Frankenstein. Pakistani support of the Taliban is well documented, including examples such as giving “six million dollars in additional aid to the Taliban” and publicizing a desire expressed by multiple officials and journalists to give up the “‘pretense of supporting the U.N. effort’” to become “unabashedly pro-Taliban” (Elias, 2007, par. 66). Pakistan was one of just a few countries that officially recognized the Taliban as a ruling body in Afghanistan. Only after the events of 9/11, accompanied by international pressure, did Pakistan denounce the Taliban and agree to assist the U.S.

The shift in Pakistani loyalties begs for understanding the motives behind the change. While most were surely sympathetic after the infamous terrorist attacks against the U.S., prevailing anti-American feelings in Pakistan rule out a shift out of sheer sympathy. Likewise, while Obama continues to declare that the war on terrorism is an international problem, the close ties Pakistan has had to supporting terrorist bases in Afghanistan suggests a lax resolve to that cause (Elias, 2007). What does incite further scrutiny, however, is the regional turmoil that has resulted with the recent intensified progress of the Iranian nuclear weapons program. While Pakistan also has nuclear capabilities, the sanctions imposed by the U.S. in consequence of the pursuit of that arsenal have drastically crippled the Pakistan conventional forces (Background Note: Pakistan, 2009).  In order to become militarily strong once more, Pakistan needed to get rid of the sanctions that barricaded its growth and production. Holding the chip of the ISI – a necessary component to accomplishing U.S. goals regarding Afghanistan and terrorism – Pakistan has won its spot at the negotiating table as Afghanistan’s fate is determined (Is Barack Obama Tough Enough, 2010). Strategically, this is important for Pakistan to maintain a step ahead of other regional rivals, such as India and Iran.

These facts implicate that Pakistan most likely shifted alliances to the U.S. to shore up military power and gain future protection through the U.S. Once achieving their own agenda, could their loyalties change? The majority anti-American attitude of Pakistan presents this as a significant possibility, especially if an alternative alliance, such as with China, presented itself.  A challenge facing all partnerships is the different costs and the different benefits for each partner. The partnership breaks down the more the differences are magnified, questioning the reliability of the bond in the first place.

Another weakness of the current policy is lack of across-the-board effectiveness. For example, a U.S. goal was to be able to end the illicit narcotic production in Afghanistan that funds the Taliban through the help of Pakistan as a partner. However, the drug trade continues to flourish. As the producer of 90 percent of the world’s opium, an estimated 1.4 million households in Afghanistan are supported in some form by the opium trade (Nordland, 2010).  While thousands of Afghans stake their living on the poppy harvest, it is the Taliban that really gains from the opium trade; a recent United Nations study estimated “the insurgents had earned as much as 600 million dollars in taxes from farmers and traffickers just from 2005 to 2008” (Nordland, 2010, par. 25). Therefore, the Afghan people’s livelihood continues to be connected to the Taliban in such a way that to destroy the drug trade would be to lose the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.

It is interesting to note then that Pakistani support in gathering up Taliban officials through raids and missile strikes has not dented the narcotic issue in Afghanistan.  This shows that there are some things the partnership cannot alter. When there are no benefits for a major issue such as the drug trade in Afghanistan, the partnership with Pakistan appears to be ineffective. The situation also reveals the limitations of Pakistan’s ability to rebuild Afghanistan into a stable state, which is arguably equally as important as taking down the bad guys.  An “opinion polls show that ordinary Afghans still deeply resent [Pakistan’s] interventions,” which confirms that Pakistan does not hold any special sway over Afghan hearts and minds when it comes to rebuilding (Tickets to the endgame, 2010, par.10). Pakistani meddling, bound to American intervention, leaves many ordinary Afghans suspicious. As the U.S. prepares to lessen its presence in Afghanistan, it needs Pakistan to play a larger role in stabilising the country and rebuilding it. Pakistan’s minimal role in these efforts challenges the effectiveness of the partnership.

Strengths of the Current Policy

Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying, “I destroy my enemy when I make him my friend.”  Recent experience has shown fundamentally-unilateral military invasion has made a lot of American enemies; Obama has sought to turn such enemies into friends through engagement. Global confidence in the image of the U.S. and its leadership has improved with Obama’s election, but with it comes expectations for greater multilateralism and a more globally considerate U.S. foreign policy (Kohut, 2009). Partnering with Pakistan has offered a way to accomplish U.S. national security goals such as defeating terrorism and stabilizing the area, soften the global image of the U.S., and make an ally in one of the most anti-American regions in the world. The partnership realizes these initiatives in a way that a unilateral approach never could.

A major strength of the current policy is that it is tailored to the primary U.S. national interests in the Afghani conflict. Stephen Biddle, the top defense policy expert for the Council on Foreign Relations, offers that the primary national interests in this conflict are that “Afghanistan never again become[s] a haven for terrorism against the United States, and that chaos in Afghanistan [does] not destabilize its neighbors, especially Pakistan” (Biddle, 2009, par. 8). Biddle acknowledges that the U.S. cannot sweep the world of every possible safe haven, but Pakistan represents more than just an average safe haven, granting it status as a critical national interest. Besides sharing a fluid border with Afghanistan and supporting the Taliban in the past, Pakistan also has “a population of 173 million (five times Afghanistan’s), a GDP of more than $160 billion (more than ten times Afghanistan’s), and a functional nuclear arsenal” (Biddle, 2009, par. 12). Biddle further argues that Pakistan becoming a state-sanctuary for al-Qaeda through governmental collapse is the likeliest scenario of al-Qaeda becoming nuclear. In Biddle’s opinion, “ the single greatest U.S. interest in Afghanistan [is] to prevent it from aggravating Pakistan’s internal problems,” which could lead to a potential state-sanctuary for al-Qaeda that is considerably more dangerous than Afghanistan (Biddle, 2009, par. 16). These reasons highlight Pakistan as an essential partner to have and keep close versus other countries in the region that could potentially have been a U.S. partner instead.

While other tactics besides partnership could have been undertaken to try and stabilize Pakistan, the dislike of all things American in Pakistan severely limits what is effectively feasible. For example, in a Pew Research Center poll, Pakistanis expressed a dislike of U.S. drone strikes because they felt like they were killing too many civilians and were planned without the consent of Pakistani government (Pew Global Attitudes Project, 2009). To address these issues, drone strikes could be scaled back, but that would require more soldier involvement and interventions. Increased interventions would surely increase soldier casualties and anti-American hatred. However, if the U.S. confirms a healthy partnership with Pakistan, Pakistani government is able to be more involved, which would allow increased intelligence for more accurate targets and hopefully assuage civilian suspicions.  The idea of working with instead of impeding upon holds sway with Pakistani civilians; the Pew Research poll also found that there is an “openness to improving relations with the U.S. and considerable support for the idea of working with it to combat terrorism” (Pew Global Attitudes Project, 2009, par. 4). Feelings that relations between the two nations could improve were reflected by a margin of 53 to 29 percent of Pakistanis (Pew Global Attitudes Project, 2009).

Beyond trying to create stability in a way that is acceptable to the people, partnering with Pakistan is a huge strength, for it offers the US access to the intelligence assets of the ISI. The U.S. knows, from previous contact with the ISI in situations such as the Soviet-Afghan war, that they hold incredible amounts of information. As stated by a former CIA official, “‘if you want to do anything in the region, you have to have the ISI on your side. These guys speak the languages, wear the clothes, and walk the streets…No one knows Afghanistan like the ISI’” (West, 2001, par. 22). What the U.S. lacks in regional credibility and ability to track insurgents in the barren mountains, the ISI has. Pakistan is said to have better links and access to the Taliban than any other source in the world (West, 2001).

Despite qualms about the partnership, there is tangible evidence that Pakistani assistance equals progress. Such progress has come in form of “821 army posts on the Afghan-Pakistan border, as opposed to just 112 manned by NATO and Afghan forces on the other side”( O'Hanlon, 2010, par. 5). Other steps forward include Pakistan increasing its brigade size operations to 209 (doubling operations from the previous year) and cutting down on lost convoy shipments. Because of Pakistani improved security, NATO convoys now lose only about 0.1 percent of goods shipped across Pakistan (O'Hanlon, 2010). Important personnel in the al-Qaeda/Taliban regime have also been caught at the beginning of 2010 thanks to Pakistani officials; these arrests include Afghan Taliban’s military chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and several of the Taliban’s ‘shadow governors’ operating in Pakistan (O'Hanlon, 2010). Leon Panetta, the CIA director, announced that increased cooperation from Pakistan has made it so “drone strikes along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border are ‘seriously disrupting al-Qaeda’” (O'Hanlon, 2010, par. 2). Because of increased intelligence sharing for drone strikes on militant targets, enemies like Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud have been eliminated and both sides have benefitted (Pakistan's Military Rejects US Aid Bill, 2009).

While Pakistani motives for the partnership may lack complete transparency, the country’s current regional position and mounting casualties speak to its commitment. While not knowing Pakistan’s true motives is certainly a downside, understanding their priorities and offering incentives that play to their concerns can promote progress. The more Pakistan believes it is being encircled by regional enemies and rivals, the greater their support for the U.S. partnership has become. This encirclement is created by “a rising India to the east, uncertain relations with Iran to the west, and growing Indian influence in Afghanistan to the north-west” (Tickets to the endgame, 2010, par. 3). Iran’s progress in nuclear weaponry has most likely further sealed the partnership for both the U.S. and Pakistan, for both seek stability and power in a troubled region. Pakistani and Indian relations, which sometimes appears a nuclear trigger just waiting to be pulled, is a relationship of world significance.

The Pew Research poll reports that “more Pakistanis judge India as a very serious threat to the nation (69%) than regard the Taliban (57%) or al-Qaeda (41%) as very serious threats” and a margin of 54 to 4 percent feel the U.S. favors India over Pakistan (Pew Global Attitudes Project, 2009). This feeling gains credence when similar polls indicate that India is one of seven countries where the majority feels that the U.S. takes into consideration their country’s interests when making foreign policy. India was also one of two countries in the poll that felt the U.S. impact is positive (Kohut, 2009). These dynamics have not gone unheard among officials in Pakistan: the country has had much to gain by allying with the U.S., primarily a seat at the negotiating table for Afghanistan. This seat is particularly prized because of Pakistani fears that what is happening in Afghanistan is due to “Indian conspiracies” that will eventually trap them “between their longtime nemesis on one side and an Indian puppet on the other” (O'Hanlon, 2010, par. 12).

Therefore, despite the costs, partnership has provided Pakistan a chance to “control policy towards India and Afghanistan” with the help of the U.S. after proving their worth by capturing critical U.S. targets (Rashid, 2010, par. 16). Because of Pakistan’s sway with Taliban senior leadership and the international community’s desire to negotiate with that leadership, Pakistan has gained a “major voice in the internal Afghan negotiations” (Kagan & Kagan, 2010, par. 4). While U.S. connections to India could drive Pakistan to renounce all U.S. affiliations, history is showing that U.S. support can be a means to gaining regional power. Without sincere Pakistani commitment to rein in Afghanistan, other countries such as India, Iran, Russia, and the Central Asian republics could easily step in and set up their own “Afghan proxies to oppose the Afghan Taliban” (Rashid, 2010, par. 23). Crossing Pakistan out of the equation would leave their government in a more precarious and unstable position than it currently is. Approached in these terms, the cost/benefit analysis to support the disliked-U.S. partnership clearly trumps the loss of position and power within the region that would result from rejecting it. The U.S. can therefore be assured of Pakistan’s long-term commitment as that nation grasps for increased strength among looming regional powers.

Pakistan does not stand alone in hoping to benefit regionally from the partnership. As previously mentioned, the U.S. has much to gain in softening its image in the global kaleidoscope through multilateral efforts. Especially in the Middle East, friendship for the U.S. is hard to come by. But nudging its way into the region through Pakistan is not all the U.S. has to gain by means of a Pakistani partnership. It may seem to be a stretch, but it would be foolish to discount the ties Pakistan has to China and what implications that could have for the United States.

During the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war, Pakistan and China formed an initially-feared axis that deflated when China failed to actually provide substantial assistance to Pakistan. The axis later came to be scoffed at as the real “paper tiger” (India's First Bomb: 1967-1974, 2001, par. 15). However, relics of history aside, Pakistanis continue to express positive opinions about China – 84 percent view China favorably and 80 percent consider China as a partner (Pew Global Attitudes Project, 2009). These results come from the same Pew Research poll that found only 9 percent of Pakistanis consider the U.S. as a partner. Were the Pakistani government to fall, would the fear of a Chinese proxy stepping in be substantial enough to warrant U.S. intervention?

While the main concern is reserved for an extremist group take-over or terrorist confiscation of Pakistani nukes in the event the Pakistani government crumbled, Chinese involvement in the wake of a government collapse cannot be ruled out. To deal with these concerns, there is an American contingency plan to confiscate nuclear weapons in Pakistan should the government collapse, which solves the primary terrorist concern; partnering with Pakistan and pumping money through the government to create a stable democracy has become a way to solve the second. As relations and competition with China increase in intensity, the U.S. continues to seek creative ways to gain Chinese cooperation or gain additional allies to maintain the power balance (especially in strategic regions like the Middle East). Partnering with Pakistan, therefore, is a strength in that it serves as a way to create stability not only for Pakistan, but also for the United States, in a region of the world where security and control is all too questionable.

Policy Recommendations

Because the U.S.-Pakistan partnership benefits both countries in strategic ways that influence key national interests, the policy is important for national security despite its flaws. The weaknesses, however, provide an excellent context for policy recommendations.  To further strengthen the existing policy concerning Pakistan and Afghanistan, the following recommendations should be considered:

Much of the Pakistani dislike for the U.S. partnership stems from civilian deaths. Drone strikes are a substantial source of these casualties. Because drones limit soldier involvement while avoiding the legal dilemma of capturing (instead of killing) terrorists, drone use is considered essential. To continue to implement drone attacks and limit civilian deaths, a measure of accountability should be established. Currently, the U.S. military does not “routinely confirm drone attacks” even though analysts say they are the only “force capable of deploying such aircraft in the region” (BBC, 2010, par. 7). However, in a similar problem in Afghanistan, responsibility was taken and there has been a measured improvement. General McChrystal--before he was sacked--implemented taking responsibility for the Special Operations forces in Afghanistan because they have been charged with committing a large portion of civilian deaths. According to the United Nations, since General McChrystal made reducing the number of civilian deaths a chief concern by claiming responsibility, civilian deaths in Afghanistan have dropped by 28 percent (Oppel & Nordland, 2010).

There is already evidence that Pakistan’s cooperation has increased the effectiveness of drone strikes, as seen in the strike that killed a terrorist plotting to strike the American base in December 2009 (O'Hanlon, 2010). The shared intelligence, which provides greater effectiveness, is in large part why the number of drone strikes has increased (Toosi, 2009). Furthermore, despite public criticism of the strikes, Pakistan authorities are said to “privately condone the strikes” (BBC, 2010, par. 6). Much of this confusion and shifting of responsibility could be avoided if drone strikes gained more transparency. While both countries most likely fear claiming an action attached to so many civilian deaths, a positive media campaign may be able to make a difference in how the drone strikes are perceived if both countries claim a measure of the responsibility. In fact, in a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, when interviewees were first asked how they felt about U.S. aid and assistance in fighting extremist groups in Pakistan and then asked how they felt about U.S. missile strikes against extremist leaders, 47 percent said they would be in favor of the missile strikes (Pew Global Attitudes Project, 2009). This percentage is substantially different than the International Republican Institute’s survey that found 76 percent of Pakistanis were opposed to partnering with the U.S. on missile strikes (Perlez, 2009).  While keeping in mind a margin of error, the positive preceding questions appear to make a difference, giving credibility to the recommendation of a positive media campaign regarding drone strike transparency.

Also, because the idea of partnering with the U.S. on missile strikes is seen as negative by 76 percent of Pakistanis in the aforementioned survey, it will be important for the media campaign to include individuals such as General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani. General Kayani currently plays the role of representing the Pakistani army in the U.S.-Pakistan dialogue delegations. He has also become the voice of Pakistan’s foreign policy (Imtiaz, 2010). Because the people of Pakistan show a high confidence in the military (86 percent confidence according to the Pew Research Center), a high profile military official will make the media campaign more effective among the Pakistani people (Pew Global Attitudes Project, 2009).

Another facet of the current policy that is in need of revision is the financial aid given to Pakistan. There are concerns about that aid will trickle down to the citizens of Pakistan and how it will stimulate change. For example, the U.S. has recently announced it will provide aid for power plants; the current electricity shortfall creates power outages between four to twelve hours a day in Pakistan. Yet despite these attempts at improvement, few Pakistanis believe U.S.-Pakistan relations are changing anything (Imtiaz, 2010). The 1.5 billion dollar nonmilitary assistance that is meant to alleviate poverty, dissuade citizens from following Islamist extremists, and support transition to democracy, has yet to make a significant impact (Toosi, 2009).

While improvements in infrastructure are extremely important, perhaps there is a step missing in the current policy. Support for the Taliban is occurring on a local level primarily within Pashtun tribes. This cycle is also occurring in Afghanistan where part of the reconciliation plan is that negotiations will occur between the government and the Taliban. The majority of Pashtun tribes (as well as most the international community) view the Afghani government as corrupt; Pashtuns further feel that exclusive negotiations with the Taliban is simply a means to empower them. This means of empowerment is multiplied by the fact that other Pashtun tribes must join the Taliban contingency to get any piece of the pie when it comes to negotiations (Kagan & Kagan, 2010). The same trend exists in the FATA of Pakistan.  The Pakistan government though has gained considerable leverage “to achieve its objectives in Afghanistan” because of this process of negotiation due to their useful connections with the Taliban (Kagan & Kagan, 2010, par. 8).

Therefore, to truly implement change and accomplish the goals the 1.5 billion dollars were meant for (such as lessen support for Islamist extremists), it would be beneficial to offer cash payments directly to the Pashtun tribes in Pakistan that are highly influenced by the Taliban. While these agreements would most likely be undesirable to the Pakistani government because it undermines “their ability to control” it would directly target a local problem without having to wait for a trickle-down effect (Kagan & Kagan, 2010, par. 12). It could also limit the need for drone strikes if improvement was able to be made from within the villages, which would help with the civilian casualty issue. Though the government may not agree, a poll collected by the Pew Research Center shows that the Pakistani people could rally behind this idea. Seventy-two percent of the people interviewed said they “would support U.S. financial and humanitarian aid to areas where extremist groups operate” (Pew Global Attitudes Project, 2009, par. 6).

It is important to provide cash payments to the Pashtun tribes in the FATA region because their independence has led to very different levels of development compared to the rest of Pakistan. There is also an element of government neglect as the region is primarily ruled by tribal elders (Military: Pakistan's FATA Policy). Therefore, national interest goals will be better achieved by directly influencing the source of the problem--the Pashtuns. While this approach contains many logistical difficulties, it is not entirely unfeasible. The intelligence the U.S. uses to track where Taliban clusters are for raids and drone strikes could be used to determine what villages are most in need of aid. To avoid Pakistan feeling completely bypassed, a delegation should be formed of Pakistani and American officials and military personnel to deliver the aid directly to the tribes. Aid use should be well documented to hold the tribe and delegation accountable for the financial aid received and given. The documentation should be available to the international community. Progress should be measured in terms of increased security and regional peace; the idea is to decrease Taliban influence to more effectively eradicate their presence altogether from these regions.

Of course, some tribes deeply entrenched in Taliban influence may not have the ability to overcome the grip of the Taliban even with the financial aid. Supplying aid in these situations would most likely mean the money would end up in the Taliban’s hands. Therefore, it will be necessary to determine tribal cash payments by having the tribe first pledge support to eradicating the Taliban and then looking at the level of Taliban presence in the village. As far as reaching out to coalition forces, a few Pashtun tribes have demonstrated this pattern in Afghanistan, which gives hope that Pashtun tribes in the FATA would do so as well (Kagan & Kagan, 2010). The delegation designed to distribute the aid will need to monitor this program closely and create specific prerequisites and purposes for the financial aid, in order to mitigate the risk of the aid falling into the hands it was meant to crush. Purposes for the financial aid could include specifics such as road side security measures, building a school, or buying materials for economic success such as farm tools. These social tactics to destroy the Taliban’s influence village by village would allow the necessary creativity it will take to overcome terrorism on an individual level. Successes and failures with the financial aid should be closely monitored and measured by the delegation to determine widespread applicability.


The main priorities of the U.S. national security agenda regarding the Afghanistan region are met through partnership with Pakistan. While there are certainly drawbacks to the bond, the partnership provides the assistance required to target terrorism and establish stability in the region. Other methods of achieving these fundamental goals, such as trying to form a major, international coalition or going at it alone, do not encompass the range of goals the U.S. had in mind to meet success.  To rid the region of terrorism and really ensure security for the American people, partnership with Pakistan is imperative.

Several Months Later…

Since the initial production of this paper, U.S./Pakistan relations have taken on an even deeper shade of red, now demanding attention as one of the most prominent national security issues currently facing the United States. The preceding months have not brought any degree of “end” to the U.S.’s involvement in Pakistan and Afghanistan; no major improvements have been noted in the media; Obama’s ratings are plummeting, at home and abroad. Poignantly put, many are beginning to see the war efforts in the Middle East as “more like Vietnam than Desert Storm”  (Hastings, 2010). The fact that sentiments such as these have been publicly expressed by none other than General McChrystal and his staff reflect the gravity of the situation (Hastings, 2010).

While the promised fruits of the Pakistani partnership have been noticeably missing these past few months, what has been recently pounced upon by the U.S. media are the uncoverable cracks that have surfaced regarding the U.S.’s position in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The first blow came as Obama fired General McChrystal because of his remarks in an interview published by Rolling Stone magazine. The interview touched on Obama’s complete lack of military wherewithal, Biden’s use at all, and the increasingly slim chances of any kind of victory in Afghanistan (Hastings, 2010). The article highlighted the rocky relationship McChrystal and Obama have had from the beginning of their time serving together, particularly their difference in opinion when it came to what it would take to cleanly wrap things up in Afghanistan. Whether the article itself or the aftermath it caused is more bitter is still hard to tell.

All media drama put aside, what this article really uncovers for the American public to see is the lack of unity amongst American leaders. People begin to question the benefits of partnering with Pakistan – with all the reservations previously mentioned in this paper – when they see that American leaders are not even partners. It also begs the question of who is really to blame for the slow and perilous progress made in that region of the world.

The second blow illuminated in the media came shortly after McChrystal’s military demise;  200,000 military files concerning Afghanistan and Pakistan were leaked and published online by Wikileaks. Among the files were “numerous logs which fuel fears that Pakistan is playing a ‘double-game’ in Afghanistan” (Doble, 2010). While the accuracy of the files are still disputed, including file information such as “Pakistani agents and al-Qaida operatives…working together on a mission” and “US suspicions that ISI officers were involved in an alleged plot to kill President Karzai,” the real issue is the timing of the leaks (Doble, 2010). Amongst America’s claims that “Pakistan is not doing enough” and Pakistan’s claims that they are a “reliable ally,” the article points out the US is going to have to fight either way to preserve public opinion (Doble, 2010).

However, surging over these tremors of doubt cast by the leaked files, has come increased pleas from the Obama administration that the current national security policy is still “absolutely vital” (Nawaz & Riedel, 2010). In fact, the scope of the policy has been widened in the fallout of the leaks to be imperative for not only the “’stability of Afghanistan and Pakistan but [also for] the stability of all of South and Central Asia’” (Nawaz & Riedel, 2010). The thought process continues to be, despite the rumors and allegations, that for any sort of settlement to happen with Afghanistan, “everything depends on Pakistan” (Doble, 2010). The partnership retains its necessity now not only for the strengths that have been previously pointed out, but also because at this point both governments have already heavily invested in the policy.

The United States is not alone in growing skepticism enshrouding the status of interstate relations – the Pakistani citizenry continues to express negative attitudes concerning the United States. In the Spring 2010 Pew Global Attitudes Survey, “roughly six-in-ten (59%) Pakistanis describe the U.S. as an enemy, while just 11% say it is a partner” (Concern About Extremist Threat Slips in Pakistan, 2010). According to the survey, citizens in Pakistan continue to be against the drone strikes, particularly because of its impact on citizens. Interestingly, General Kayani - whom I suggested be the face of a media campaign to support drone strikes in the partnership - was criminalized in some of the reports recently leaked. Although there is a chance that the accusations are entirely false, it is still “very embarassing [because] US officials have repeatedly declared…absolute trust in General Kayani” (Doble, 2010).

Still, about half of those surveyed in Pakistan continue to be in favor of the “U.S. providing financial and humanitarian aid to areas where extremist groups operate,” which gives hope to the recommendation of financially injecting capital into some of the roughest areas in the war zones (Concern About Extremist Threat Slips in Pakistan, 2010). The survey also shows an increased rate of Pakistanis who want better relations between the U.S. and Pakistan (64% now compared to 53% last year). These positive rays highlight a key point to the security issue of partnership. Even with all the chaos circling the policy these past few months, the primary reaction in both the US and Pakistan is not to create a new policy. Instead, the actions and comments following the political eruptions are to soothe doubts and further solidify the partnership. For example, Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution, does not suggest that the policy of partnership should be done away with. Instead he advocates strengthening the policy through further recommendations such as “lower tariffs on Pakistani imports to the United States,” which will in turn “stabilize the relationship and establish trust” (Nawaz & Riedel, 2010). For the partnership to have been solidified rather than destroyed by the recent scandals speaks to its credibility as the best national security option for the U.S. at this time.



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Full Citation for This Article: Zirkle, Rachel Fairclough (2010) "The Evolving US-Pakistani Relationship," SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 2 (Summer), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleZirklePakistan.html, accessed [give access date].

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