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Growing anti-Americanism in Pakistan

By Shahid M. Amin 

THE US has long been — and continues to be — Pakistan’s most important ally, judged by the range of its ties in the military, economic and political fields. But many Pakistanis distrust it and, in the last decade, some have come to regard the US as an enemy.
First Prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan meeting President Truman 
(during the 1950s when Pakistani Prime minister made a good will tour in the U.S).

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It is notable that the Pakistani establishment — viz. the bureaucracy, the military, the businessmen and the educated classes — are westernised to a large extent. And yet, in the past few years, anti-Americanism has been growing and cuts across nearly all sections of Pakistani society. This love-hate attitude has clouded the bilateral relationship and can do long-term damage to it. The reasons for this paradoxical situation are diverse: some are historical and some are contemporary.
Firstly, there is a perception that the US is an unreliable friend. It uses Pakistan and then ditches it. Pakistani misgivings can be traced back to the military pacts signed in the 1950s when Pakistan became “the most allied” of the US allies. A serious difficulty arose because the two sides had differing interpretations about the raison d’être of these pacts.
The US view was that the provisions for mutual assistance could be invoked only in case of communist aggression against a pact member. Pakistan insisted that the pacts were applicable to aggression coming from any quarter and that, since 1955, India had become a virtual ally of the Soviet Union. Pakistan, moreover, relied on certain specific US assurances of help to Pakistan, e.g. the Ayub-Kennedy joint communiqué of July 13, 1961 which declared that the US Government “regards it as vital to its national interest and to world peace the preservation of the independence and integrity of Pakistan.”
It was against this background that, at the outbreak of the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War, Pakistan was shocked by US neutrality and stoppage of arms supplies to Pakistan. Similarly, during the Bangladesh crisis, Pakistan felt that the US had done little to help it, despite India’s unconcealed efforts, with Soviet help, to break up Pakistan in 1971.
The Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s saw the US and Pakistan work closely together in support of the Afghan Mujahideen. But soon after the Soviet withdrawal, the US became critical of the same Islamic fundamentalists whom it had befriended during the jihad. The perception also grew that the US had abandoned Afghanistan instead of helping in its rehabilitation after the devastation caused by years of fighting.
In 2001, after the 9/11 outrage, President Bush decided to attack Afghanistan to punish the Al Qaeda as well as its protector the Taliban regime. Pakistan was the only feasible access route for the invasion of Afghanistan and the US applied strong pressure on Islamabad to join it in “the war against terror”. A top US official made a threat to “bomb Pakistan back to the stone age” if it did not comply. Bush insisted that “either you are with us or against us”. Opposing the US under such circumstances involved unacceptable costs for Pakistan in terms of loss of aid and trade, and even the security of its nuclear assets. But this arm-twisting negated US protestations of an old friendship with Pakistan.
Secondly, there is a perception that the US has been interfering in Pakistan’s internal affairs. Even changes of regime in Pakistan have been attributed to Washington. The US has been accused by democratic circles in Pakistan of supporting military regimes. On the other hand, when the US applied pressure on dictatorial regimes to accommodate democratic rights, they too accused the US of interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs.
Similarly, the US was accused of interference when it applied strong pressure on Pakistan not to develop a nuclear-weapon capability. It imposed sanctions on Pakistan, but not on India which had started the nuclear race in the subcontinent. Suspicions still persist that the US might try to destroy Pakistan’s nuclear assets.
At present, the US is pressing Islamabad to “do more” against the suspected sanctuaries of Al Qaeda and Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal belt. The US has held out threats of unilateral military strikes in Pakistani territory. The drone attacks inside Pakistani territory have brought protests from the public, the political parties and the media as a violation of Pakistani sovereignty.
There is a third perception that the US is following anti-Islam policies. In particular, its open-ended support for Israel has angered Muslims and has become the single most important cause of anti-American feelings in the Muslim world. Moreover, many Muslims have been alienated by US involvement in three recent wars against Muslim countries, namely, the Gulf War of 1990, the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Pakistani concerns have been raised by the recent paradigm shift in US policy to establish a strategic relationship with India. It has made a landmark nuclear agreement with India but has declined to do so with Pakistan. The US has also turned a blind eye to Indian repression of Kashmiris while proclaiming human rights elsewhere.
Anti-Americanism has grown because of the above-mentioned perceptions of US policies. The rise of Islamist terrorism is a direct consequence of such perceptions. Most Muslims oppose terrorism but some have sympathy for the anti-US rationale of the terrorists. This explains why some Pakistani political parties, as well as sections of the media, have not been forthcoming in denouncing the Al Qaeda and Taliban.
Appraisal: Perceptions are important and do influence public opinion, but perceptions can also be half-truths. In view of the importance of US-Pakistan relations, there is need for sifting facts from fiction.
Firstly, Pakistani grievances about the military pacts were based on a lack of understanding. There was no ambiguity about the US motivation in setting up these pacts, which was preventing communist expansion. The language of the pacts was clear viz. they could be Invoked only in the case of Communist aggression. In that framework, Pakistan secured significant military aid, but it actually used it to fight India in the 1965 war.
Secondly, Pakistani policy-makers had considered that it was in Pakistan’s own national interest to oppose the Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan. The logic was that the Red Army had reached the Khyber Pass which posed a direct threat to Pakistan’s own security. Pakistan, therefore, started to extend support to the Afghan resistance even before the US did so. The US had its own global policy of opposing Soviet expansion. It is not correct that the US had compelled Pakistan to join the war against the Soviets that, incidentally, was also being opposed by Iran, China and other countries.
However, where Pakistan has a genuine grievance is that after the Soviet withdrawal, the US washed its hands off the affair. Pakistan was left alone to handle the aftermath of the Afghan war viz. the militarisation of religious groups, the proliferation of weapons, and the rise of terrorism that has destabilised Pakistan. The former Mujahideen turned into Frankensteins and have become a threat to the Pakistani state and society.
As for the current war in Afghanistan, the fact is that, after 9/11, a consensus had developed in the world that Al-Qaeda and its protector the Taliban regime had to be punished. Had Pakistan not abandoned its friendship with the Taliban regime, it would have become isolated in the world. By joining the war, Pakistan assumed a key position on the world stage and received strong economic, military and diplomatic support.
Thirdly, the allegation of US interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs is a half truth. The US and other countries had little option but to have relations with military regimes in Pakistan, since they were the de facto rulers for long periods of time. The recent WikiLeaks have also revealed that Pakistani leaders themselves have encouraged the US to meddle in Pakistan’s internal affairs. Saudi Arabia is another friend who has been induced to get embroiled in our internal affairs.
Fourthly, the historical record does not show that the US is anti-Islam. Religion is not a determinant in US policies. Many Muslim countries have been close friends of the US. Two Muslim countries – Bosnia and Kosovo — became independent recently mainly due to US efforts. During the Afghan Jihad against the Soviets, the US provided vital aid to the Mujahideen. Even in the case of Israel, whatever concessions Israel has made to the Arabs were due to US pressure. US forced Israel to withdraw from Sinai in 1956 as also in 1978. The Oslo Accord of 1993 led to Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza.
A stable and harmonious relationship with the US, the world’s sole Superpower, is vitally important for Pakistan which has received more military and economic aid from the US than from any other country. After Pakistan’s defeat in the 1971 War, the US played an important part in dissuading
India from attacking West Pakistan. During the Kargil crisis of 1999 and the eyeball-to-eyeball India-Pakistan confrontation of 2002-2003, the US did much to diffuse tensions. Moreover, over a period of time, what started as the US war against terror has since become Pakistan’s own war as well. The religious extremists have become an existential threat to the Pakistani state. Pakistan now has a convergence of interests with the US to fight them together.
It is equally in the US interest to befriend Pakistan which occupies a key geostrategic location in a region which has been a focal point of international attention for a long time. Pakistan is a key player in the fight against such Al Qaeda. The Pakistani ruling elite is progressive and liberal. Pakistan has been a force for moderation in the Muslim world whose role in global politics will remain of great importance in the years to come. Pakistan is the only Muslim country with nuclear capability. Moreover, Pakistan’s close friendship with China adds to its strategic importance.
To conclude, US-Pakistan relations have importance for both countries and need to be handled with care in a realistic manner. There has to be greater receptivity on both sides to each other’s concerns and a willingness to remove whatever misgivings arise due to a lack of communication or otherwise.
The writer is a former ambassador.
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