Academic journal article Asia Policy

Pakistan and the United States: A More Turbulent Ride?

Academic journal article Asia Policy

Pakistan and the United States: A More Turbulent Ride?

Article excerpt

The news following Donald Trump's unexpected victory in the U.S. presidential election has provided a steady dose of drama to the often turbulent U.S.-Pakistan relationship. During the campaign, Trump promised to clamp down on "radical Islamic terrorism" and proposed a total ban on Muslims entering the United States, later scaling this back to "extreme vetting."1 Three weeks after the election came the phone conversation between Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif and Trump. The Pakistani government's press release described the conversation as an effusive exchange, with Trump quoted as saying "you are a terrific guy" and that Pakistanis are "one of the most intelligent people."2 The Pakistani account also described a Trump offer to mediate Pakistan's "outstanding problems." This astonishing range of views from the incoming U.S. leader would appear to foreshadow a time of great unpredictability in U.S.-Pakistan ties.

U.S.-Pakistan relations have generated intense frustration for both countries. But Pakistan has 180 million people, nuclear weapons, and a major unresolved dispute with a nuclear neighbor. Among armed groups present there, some are starkly at odds with the government, others the army regards as intelligence assets, and some the United States regards as terrorists. Pakistan also has close political and growing economic relations with China, which it considers its most faithful friend. The new U.S. administration, like its predecessors, will need to deal seriously with Pakistan. Recent commentary referring to Pakistan, despite its history of alliance with the United States, as a "frenemy" captures some of the ambiguity in this complicated relationship.2

Are Pakistan and the United States Partners?

The strategic drivers of U.S.-Pakistan relations have had considerable staying power over the years. The United States and Pakistan have been security partners in one form or another since 1954. There have been three periods of especially intense engagement: the early Cold War from 1954 until the India-Pakistan war of 1965, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and its aftermath from 1979 to 1990, and the period since the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. During all three periods, Pakistan's main strategic goal was to line up support from major powers against what it saw as an existential threat from its large neighbor, India. The U.S. objectives, on the other hand, reflected strategic goals outside Pakistan-developing the Cold War alliance system in the 1950s, responding to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and after 2001 conducting the war on terrorism, in which Afghanistan was a sanctuary for the terrorists who attacked New York and Washington, D.C.

The two countries' strategic objectives, in other words, were only partly aligned. They believed they needed each other but also worked at cross-purposes. In the past decade, their mismatched goals have badly frayed their partnership, generating mistrust and cynicism in both countries. Popular support for the United States has fallen starkly in Pakistan. In the United States, congressional support for Pakistan remained strong until the late 1980s but has declined sharply in the past decade.

Looking ahead, the U.S.-Pakistan strategic disconnect will continue to shape two key U.S. strategic interests: the future of Afghanistan and peace between the two nuclear neighbors, India and Pakistan. However, some of the positions advanced by the Trump campaign, the Trump administration's key personalities, and Trump's own style will powerfully affect the environment in which both countries make policy. They will particularly affect other highly emotive issues with which the United States and Pakistan have wrestled, greatly heightening the volatility of the relationship.

Afghanistan and Terrorism

Afghanistan has been at the heart of U.S.-Pakistan engagement since the attacks of September 11. As part of the strategic partnership against terrorism, the United States provided Pakistan with substantial assistance, which it hoped would enlist Pakistan in preventing Afghanistan from again becoming a haven for terrorism. …

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