Among the Lions

The Obama visit has put US-India relations back on the right foot—much to Pakistan’s dismay

An absent Pakistan can only wish to be included in photo-ops like this one. Jason Reed / REUTERS
01 December, 2010

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN the United States and Pakistan, which has seen its share of ups and downs over the last six decades, can best be described as one between patron and client. The two countries share no deep affinities, and there have been minimal economic relations and social ties, as the Pakistani diaspora in the US remains quite small.

It has been a ‘friendship’ based on geopolitical considerations and mutual interests: soon after the Cold War began, Washington looked to Pakistan as a counterweight to Soviet influence in South Asia, and Islamabad was prepared to participate in this new Great Game for the sake of gaining an advantage against its arch-enemy, India. Pakistan became a client state of the US, and a rentier state as well; it used its geographical position to command financial and military support from Washington.

The only things that mattered in this relationship were arms, strategic co-operation and military training. Security was the stated rationale for US-Pakistan relations, which explains why the frequency of military coups in Islamabad has never posed a problem for Washington. When the US turned to Pakistan in the wake of 9/11, yet another general was in charge—and Pervez Musharraf was more than happy to play the clientelistic Great Game once more. In tribute to Pakistan’s status as the ‘frontline’ country par excellence in the fight against America’s new enemy, Islamism, Bush delivered 12 billion dollars in aid and military reimbursements to Pakistan, three-quarters of which was ‘security related.’ The Pakistani army got a billion dollars annually for seven years.

Barack Obama came into office determined to change gears. First he bracketed Afghanistan and Pakistan as ‘AfPak,’ arguing that Afghanistan could not be ‘solved’ without a solution in Pakistan as well. Second, he made clear his desire to work with the democratically elected governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight Islamist militants. As he declared shortly before entering the White House:

Thus far President Zardari has sent the right signals. He’s indicated that he recognises this is not just a threat to the United States, but it is a threat to Pakistan as well... I think this democratically-elected government understands that threat and I hope that in the coming months we’re going to be able to establish the kind of close, effective working relationship that makes both countries safer.

The first reflection of Obama’s desire to shift relations in a new direction came with the Kerry-Lugar Bill of 2009, which attempted to direct funds principally to Pakistan’s civilian government—over the objection of the army.

The Kerry-Lugar Bill committed the US to giving Pakistan 1.5 billion dollars per year between 2010 and 2014. America’s new policy had a longer-term orientation, because the Obama administration now regarded Pakistan as ‘the most dangerous country in the world.’ This hollow formulation—first used by Bruce Reidel, a former CIA officer now at the Brookings Institution who served as a key adviser to Obama on ‘Af-Pak’—had been repeated several times during the 2008 presidential campaign by Obama’s vice-president, Joe Biden. The rise of Islamism had become the critical issue for the Americans—more so than nuclear proliferation or military adventures—and Obama’s advisers believed that only a long-term effort to educate Pakistanis and make them

richer could halt the Islamist advance.

Obama’s new Pakistan policy ran into trouble almost immediately. The Pakistani leaders whom Obama had singled out as his partners for building this new relationship have been ineffective. Zardari has quickly lost most of his credibility, largely because of his reputation for corruption and nepotism, and because of his inability to relate to the Pakistani people.

But even when Zardari still benefited from some popularity, he had not been able to prevail over the military. He could not have the ISI placed under civilian supervision; he could not accept the Indian offer to share intelligence about the Mumbai attack; and he could not prevent General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, the powerful army chief of staff, from extending his tenure by three years.

Washington might have tried harder to avoid becoming comfortable with the renewed power of Pakistan’s military. But top American officials gradually began to talk directly to Kayani—which, in turn, further diminished the authority of Pakistan’s civilian government. Was this perhaps a deliberate move by the Americans, driven by the impression that dealing with Zardari was a waste of time?

One way or the other, the Pakistani army—which has prospered thanks to American funds for six decades—was eager to restart the flow of American money and arms, to better compete with India. Before long, Washington bowed to Kayani’s wishes and upgraded its security-related aid last October, granting a 2 billion dollar package to the Pakistani army.

But the army has dragged its feet rather than intervene against the Afghan Taliban and those old friends of the ISI, the Haqqani network—the army has no desire to weaken militant outfits that it regards as useful to its aim of regaining lost influence in Afghanistan, especially after Obama’s declaration last year that American troops would begin to withdraw in July 2011. As a result, the US decided to go after the Haqqani network itself—and resuscitated its old relationship with Pakistan’s army as a means of securing the right to expand drone attacks in the FATA. During its first 18 months in office, the Obama administration authorised more drone attacks than its predecessors had in the prior eight years.

The Pakistani army dutifully looked the other way—except in cases when its own soldiers were killed—and the six-decade old patron-client relationship seemed to be back on track.

But this arrangement may not be easy to maintain. Pakistan’s leaders, already uneasy about India’s rapid economic growth, have been disappointed by the signs of Indo-US rapprochement—especially the nuclear agreement. Obama’s recent visit to India triggered even more furious reactions in Pakistan after the American president endorsed a permanent seat for India on the UN Security Council, lifted the export controls on sensitive technologies, and signed a deal to sell ten Boeing C-17 military transport aircraft, worth 5.8 billion dollars. The trip’s final communiqué suggested that India had become a major partner for the United States, which could only worry the Pakistanis. Indeed, one of the most significant aspects of the partnership involves regional security: Islamabad is eager to eliminate Indian influence in Afghanistan, but that’s going to be difficult if Washington is consulting with New Delhi before formulating Afghan strategy.

Washington’s polite but firm refusal to grant Pakistan everything it has agreed to deliver in India has become a major irritant in US-Pakistani relations. Islamabad is eager to achieve any parity it can manage with India—especially when it comes to nuclear issues—but the United States has not offered Pakistan anything comparable to India’s nuclear energy deal and sophisticated arms.

The final complication in the US-Pakistan relationship is the role now played by the Chinese. Islamabad has a credible new patron to whom it can turn—or pretend to turn—when spurned by the United States. China and Pakistan share a common rival in India, and Beijing may have more to gain than the United States by allying itself with Pakistan, including access to a deep-water port on the Arabian sea, which the Chinese have built for Pakistan at Gwadar.

In this sense, Pakistan is truly a pivotal state; its affections can easily be redirected elsewhere. The country’s first military dictator, Ayub Khan, made this clear in 1965: When asked how Pakistan managed to survive in the midst of so many lions—India, China, the Soviet Union and the United States—he calmly replied that he knew “how to live peacefully among the lions by setting one lion against another.”

Christophe Jaffrelot is a contributing editor at The Caravan. He has authored several books including The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics and Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the rise of Ethnic Democracy. He is a senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris; a professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London; and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.