Michael KreponPakistan/US: Ties that Chafe and Bind

Husain Haqqani has many detractors in Pakistan due to his shifting political allegiances and book publications. The thesis of Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military (2005) is about a longstanding alliance of convenience between the Army and Pakistan’s religious parties “to seek strategic depth in Afghanistan and to put pressure on India,” which cemented the Army’s domestic dominance and policies with dire consequences. Husain treads lightly on the failings of Pakistan’s political class, which bid for the Army’s favors while accumulating wealth. Washington comes in for heavy criticism for backing military strongmen and for not making assistance conditional on behavioral change. Pakistan comes across as a “rentier state” – one that “lives off the rents of its strategic location” — yet another reason why this book did not receive rave reviews in Rawalpindi.

Payback came when Husain was forced out of his post as President Asif Zadari’s emissary to Washington. After the US raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, an orchestrated media campaign charged him of conspiring with a Pakistani-American living in Monaco to seek the Obama administration’s help to prevent an imaginary military coup attempt. Pakistan’s judicial system, which has difficulty prosecuting the perpetrators of mass-casualty attacks, quickly found sufficient evidence to launch judicial proceedings of treasonous behavior.

Husain is now back in the United States writing books. His latest, Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding, will add Pakistan’s diplomatic corps to his list of detractors. He has burned another bridge, this time with a historical narrative of Pakistan’s play book to secure US economic and military assistance. “Since 1947,” he argues, “dependence, deception, and defiance have characterized US-Pakistan relations. We sought US aid in return for promises we did not keep.” His sources – US archival material providing direct quotes and summaries of high-level exchanges, as well as personal recollections – are too detailed to be dismissed as anti-Pakistan propaganda.

Husain’s bottom line: “Pakistan and the United States have few shared interests and very different political needs… If $40 billion in US aid has not won Pakistani hearts and minds, billions more will not do the trick… The US-Pakistan alliance is only a mirage.” Not exactly your standard, dispassionate diplomatic history.

The book’s title and subtitle reflect publishing license. The story Husain tells isn’t epic; it’s just painful. And it’s not really about misunderstandings. Some US interlocutors, like John Foster Dulles, Richard Nixon, and Alexander Haig, initially wore rose-colored glasses, but no one on either side was delusional about the bilateral relationship for very long. Both sides were willing to accept long-term consequences in return for near-term gains.

Rawalpindi and Islamabad always have a hole card to play to keep Washington on tap: first serving as a bulwark against the Soviet Union and a door-opener to China, helping to expel Soviet troops from Afghanistan, then helping with some al-Qaeda conspirators and with logistical support for US troops in Afghanistan. Now Washington is ready to help with push-back against jihadi groups and to avoid worst cases on the subcontinent.

Throughout this long, twisted tale, Washington knowingly accepted false promises – whether about Pakistan not using US military assistance against India, not being in cahoots with extremist groups, or not having a nuclear weapon program – to work with Pakistan on a higher priority. Pakistani leaders come across as being far more capable at manipulation than their US counterparts, but their success in leveraging aid was wasted on ruinous policies. Pakistan’s internal weakness has now become its hole card and nuclear weapons its guarantee of continued external support.

Typically, US interlocutors leave office completely exasperated with Pakistan. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s parting shot, conveyed in private, was “Focusing your energies on an Indian threat that does not exist is a colossal mistake.” In his last appearance on Capitol Hill as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen referred to the Haqqani network, which attacks US and allied troops in Afghanistan, as a “virtual arm” of the ISI. New US officials then begin another cycle of engagement and disillusionment.

The most revealing and damaging passages in Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military relate to internal deliberations in May 1992 after Secretary of State James Baker threatened Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif with designating Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism. US Ambassador Nicholas Platt handed Nawaz a letter from Baker and his own talking points, for added effect. Husain was then an advisor to Nawaz. A few days later, Nawaz convened his advisors. Husain took notes of the meeting. He writes that General Javed Nasir, the Director General of the ISI

argued that the jihad in Kashmir was at a critical stage and could not be disrupted. ‘We have been covering our tracks so far and we will cover them even better in the future,’ General Nasir said, adding ‘There are empty threats. The United States will not declare Pakistan a terrorist state. All we need to do is buy more time and improve our diplomatic effort.’

Nawaz Sharif agreed with General Nasir’s assessment, which reflected the consensus of the meeting… The highest levels of Pakistan’s government saw the problem as one of managing the country’s relations with the United States, not a substantive problem of adopting an incorrect policy… The Army Chief suggested that Pakistan could get off the hook with the United States for some changes in its pattern of support for Kashmiri militancy without shutting down the entire clandestine operation. This is precisely the policy Pakistan adopted.

Husain adds more telling details of this meeting in Magnificent Delusions — that Nawaz never opened Baker’s letter and that General Nasir added, “We know how to take care of the CIA. We know what they need and we give it to them in bits and pieces to keep them happy.”

What lies ahead? Husain concludes that Pakistanis “will someday have to come to terms with global realities…To think that the United States would indefinitely provide economic and military assistance in return for partial support of US objectives is delusional.” But it’s hard for Washington to walk away when the writ of the Pakistani state shrinks while stockpiles of nuclear weapons and fissile materials grow. Pakistan remains too important for Washington to sever transactional ties based on common interests. My guess is that future deals will involve smaller sums, with Beijing and Riyadh picking up the tab for Washington’s diminishing investments.


  1. krepon (History)
  2. P (History)

    > My guess is that future deals will involve smaller sums, with Beijing and Riyadh picking up the tab for Washington’s diminishing investments.

    A completely reasonable guess. However, I would like to point out two credible future developments that could work against it :

    – Beijing is starting to have some trouble with its Muslim minorities, notably the Uighurs. Their extremists groups, while they are likely not yet linked with the Pakistani-sponsored groups in Afghanistan, are certainly going to associate themselves with other central Asian terrorist networks – if this isn’t already done. Once Beijing notices such links, the Chinese/Pakistani relation could sour, too. The key problem is that China knows it has nothing to fear from India, thus it can afford to stop supporting Pakistan.

    – Riyadh certainly intends to support Pakistan, but the question is whether it can afford to. This country is already picking up the tab in Egypt (a tab that’s turning out to be far more expensive that they originally envisionned), and it has committed itself to a level of internal spending that requires high oil prices (98$ per barrel according to http://www.mees.com/en/articles/8163-modeling-opec-fiscal-break-even-oil-prices-new-findings-and-policy-insights), and thus consumes most of their earnings.

    Of course, I don’t know the future any better than you, but I think that, due to these reasons, it’s also completely possible that a situation happens where Pakistan finds itself with severe internal difficulties and no external support.

    What would happen in this case, however, is beyond my guessing ability.

  3. Tarun (History)

    Mr Krepon is the mighty military industrial complex that actually runs US post world war 2 and took over from british imperium so stupid to be fooled by a bankrupt nation. Pakistan is one of the many snakes that US MIC has nurtured across the globe (like Saudi wahabi regime, erstwhile Shah of Iran, south American militias) for its transactional goals. The real US aim is to prevent the rise of any Eurasian power to challenge US hegemony. Pakistan is used to contain India, India and Japan to contain China and NATO is used to contain Russia.

  4. narender (History)

    i always like your style of writing and analysis of situation existing in this part of the World.China wants to use Pakistan against India.America can’t afford to look the other way as it needs Pakistan to know what India and China are doing in this region.

  5. Rizwan Asghar (History)

    An article full of sweeping judgements. Haqqani also mentions a lot of other facts in his books but Michael Krepon has (quite conveniently) forgotten to mention them. In his latest book, Haqqani holds both Pakistan and the US equally responsible for their relationship of mistrust. But Krepon chose to focus only on Pakistan.

  6. Shane (History)

    Excellent piece, Michael. It’s quite astonishing that after nearly four decades of U.S. involvement in the region and in Pakistan, we’re still at, “Well, things are horrible and everyone hates us, but they have terrorists and nukes…What the hell, let’s keep doing the same things we’ve always done.”

    Writing about Ukraine in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Henry Kissinger claimed that “the test of policy is how it ends, not how it begins.” By this criteria, neither American nor Pakistani interests have been well-served by our Pakistan policy.

    The answer to this problem surely can’t be to stay the course. The “future deals, but smaller sums” approach is certainly a step in the right direction, but I’m afraid it may not go far enough. I wish we could be more creative, but it may indeed be the only realistic option, given the risks involved. What a mess.

  7. Bradley Laing (History)