The United States is already working to bypass Pakistan’s geographical advantage in the region, and it isn’t as invested in maintaining the geopolitical order in the Middle East any more.
File image: Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan. US President Joe Biden has chosen to snub Prime Minister Khan by choosing not to arrange a phone conversation, in normal circumstances a small diplomatic courtesy.
Thousands had gathered, one November morning in 1974, outside the United States Embassy in Islamabad, vowing vengeance against America. A day earlier, the millenarian Islamist leader Juhayman al-Otaybi had seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, seeking to replace the Saudi monarchy with a theocracy. Islamist student leaders at Islamabad’s Quaid-e-Azam university spread rumours that America was behind the outrage. Jama’at-e-Islami cadre, bussed in under the benign gaze of the police, torched the diplomatic mission.
Embassy personnel desperately tried to call Pakistan’s military leader, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, for help. The calls weren’t taken, recalled Barrington King, a diplomat present in the embassy that day: General Zia’s staff claimed their boss “had taken to riding bicycles, and he was having a bicycle ride, and he was greeting his constituents”.
“I think the non-arrival of the Army for the next five hours is very suspicious,” King noted. “The response was unsatisfactory, to say the least. Some people explain that they wanted to teach us a lesson about a few thing.”
For months now, the United States seems to have set about returning the favour—with interest. US President Joe Biden has chosen to snub Prime Minister Imran Khan by choosing not to arrange a phone conversation, in normal circumstances a small diplomatic courtesy. Even though Pakistan has complained bitterly of the slight—with National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf using language more commonamong spurned teenagers than diplomats—the White House hasn’t relented.
Last week, after Republican senators moved a bill seeking a probe into Islamabad’s role in the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, rumours that the United States might impose sanctions on Pakistan led stocks to plunge and its rupee to crash to a record low.
The message seems to be simple: the United States is no longer willing to tolerate Islamabad’s cultivation of proxies who engage in terrorism. Although Pakistan says it has “other options”—a threat to deepen its ties with China—the United States is calling its bluff.
Is the United States to finally walk out of its decades-old, toxic relationship relationship with Pakistan? The answer isn’t a simple one—and what happened in 1979 understands the complex calculations at work.
From 1953 to 1961, Pakistan had received billions of dollars in aid because of its participation in the anti-Communist treaty system; in turn, it allowed United States spy planes to operate against the Soviet Union from Peshawar, and brokered talks with China. General Zia’s military coup in 1977, and a steady flow of intelligence on Pakistan’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, began to sour that relationship, though—and in the summer of 1979, US President Jimmy Carter cut off aid.
The embassy attack of 1979 was, possibly, an unsubtle message from the General about what a breakdown of the relationship could mean, in a region plunged into crisis because of the Islamic revolution in Iran.
In December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan—settling the debate in Washington on how best to handle Pakistan. The invasion proved a gift from General Zia, just as 9/11 would be for another military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf: in return for Islamabad becoming the main conduit for aid to jihadists fighting the Soviet Union, US President Ronald Reagan’s administration agreed to a five-year, $3.2 billion economic and military aid package.
The defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, though, saw the United States turn away from its ally, and onset of a long chill in the Islamabad-Washington relationship. The issue of nuclear weapons again acquired centre-stage, with the United States slashing both military and economic aid, and refusing to deliver 71 F-16 fighters ordered by Pakistan.
It wasn’t until 1998 that Washington refunded $324.6 million Islamabad had paid for the F16s, and resumed some limited economic aid—part of a wider effort to re-engage with the region, notably by seeking to establish a relationship with the new Taliban emirate in Afghanistan.
The tilt towards New Delhi, though, was accelerated by the Kargil war in 1999, and General Musharraf’s military coup later that year. India’s growing economy appeared, to many in Washington, to make it a much more attractive and reliable partner than a crisis-mired Islamabad.
Like in 1979, 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan led to a surge in aid for Pakistan—followed by disillusionment, as General Musharraf and his successors failed to act against the Taliban. The United States’ strained relationship with both Iran and Russia left it completely dependent on Pakistan for the logistical routes needed to sustain its war effort in Afghanistan. Even though the United States knew the jihadists attacking its forces in Afghanistan had the patronage of Islamabad, there seemed to be no option other than to make the most possible from this bad situation.
For the Generals, the decision not to act against their jihadist proxies was a pragmatic one. General Musharraf’s limited actions against some jihadist groups after 9/11 led to a fracture with the Pakistan Army’s clients, leading many to turn against the State. This led Pakistan into a savage confrontation with terrorist groups, and a breakdown of a long relationship with political Islamists who had legitimised the Army’s control of politics.
The strains in the relationship, though, finally reached the point of no-return after al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden was killed in a raid inside Pakistan in May 2011—followed, in quick order, with a United States attack on Pakistani military positions along the Afghanistan border, which killed 26 of its soldiers. Even though both sides attempted to heal the fracture, there was little success; aid, data from the United States Congressional Research Service show, steadily declined thereafter.
The Generals, in essence, gambled thus: in spite of their continued sponsorship of jihadist groups, the United States would have no choice but to do business with Islamabad, in pursuance of its wider interests.
For three reasons, that gamble now seems ill-judged. First, Pakistan doesn’t really have the option of risking its relationship with the West. Even though significant investments have come from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the costs have been high, and returns lower than expected; Islamabad has been compelled to seek debt rescheduling from Beijing. Islamabad remains dependent, moreover, on finance from Western-led institutions like the International Monetary Fund, and access to the markets of the United States and Europe.
Secondly, the United States is working to bypass Pakistan’s geographical advantage. Talks are already underway with Russia for joint use of military bases in Central Asia towards counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan. It’s not inconceivable, either, that ongoing negotiations with Iran on its missile and nuclear-weapons programmes could end in entente.
Third, the United States has much less interest in maintaining the geopolitical order in the Middle-East, than it once had when it was dependent on the region’s hydrocarbons. Today, the United States produces almost all of its own natural gas, and can replace imported oil with domestic production, if needed.
Little clarity exists on what has provoked President Biden’s extraordinary coolness to Prime Minister Khan, but one plausible explanation is that the message is in fact directed at the country’s all-powerful Generals. In the long build-up to the collapse of Afghanistan’s government, Islamabad promised to use its influence with the Taliban to build an inclusive political order, and ensure terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and the Haqqani Network were shut down.
Irrespective of whether Islamabad wouldn’t, or couldn’t, keep its promises, it is now facing the consequence.
How far will the United States be willing to go? In 2011, US President Barack Obama famously told the movie star George Clooney that Pakistan was the one country that kept him awake at night. The prospect of Islamabad exporting its nuclear weapons technology to rogue regimes, or the state itself being captured by jihadists, he appeared to suggest, were nightmares that world leaders had to confront. Those strategic threats remain.President Biden, for now, appears to be willing to bet that pressure will compel Islamabad to alter its behaviour—an argument New Delhi has long made. Islamabad, though, will hoping another geopolitical crisis might change America’s calculations, as it did so often in the past.