Afghanistan: A Tail which Wags the Dog?

By Misbah Azam

Recently, after January 1, 2018, President Trump’s early morning tweet about Pakistan, the National Security Advisor, Dr. H. R. McMaster said while talking to the Voice of America’s Greta Van Susteren:

This is not a blame game, as some would say. This is really our effort to communicate clearly to Pakistan that our relationship can no longer bear the weight of contradictions, and that we have to really begin now to work together to stabilize Afghanistan. And in a way, that would be a huge benefit to Pakistan, as well. What’s frustrating at times is we see Pakistan operating against the interests of its own people by going after these groups only selectively, by providing safe havens and support bases for Taliban and Haqqani network leadership that operate out of Pakistan as they perpetuate hell in portions of Pakistan and in Afghanistan.

Commonly, the western political pundits and commentators demonstrated their categorical support to administration’s rhetoric which slowly gained momentum during last 10 years and now culminated to public humiliation and threats to Pakistan — a country of over 200M people with world’s sixth largest military with huge, and fastest growing, nuclear arsenals, supported by sophisticated delivery systems which have the capabilities to hit anywhere in its neighboring countries.  However, so far, there is hardly any voice which analyzes and explains the position of Pakistani side.  This article is organized, simply to look at how the common person, the legislators, security establishment and the public intellectuals in Pakistan would see the US and Pakistan engagements during last 70 years and in light of those realities, is it prudent to believe that Dr. McMaster’s comments would really be heard in Pakistan the way we want them to hear?

In his comments, Dr. McMaster highlighted some specific points, that US-Pakistan relations cannot bear the weight of contradictions from Pakistan, that if Pakistan supports every demand by the US, it would benefit Pakistan, that President Trump’s tweet was one effort to communicate to Pakistan that Pakistan should work with the US to stabilize Afghanistan and that the Haqqani Network is supported by Pakistan and this network is bringing havoc in Afghanistan and even in Pakistan.  However, the history tells something totally different.  The relevant questions are; were the contradictions coming only from Pakistan? Did Pakistan always enjoy the benefits of its unconditional support for the US interests? Does the US administration really believe that by humiliating Pakistan publically and by issuing threats, Pakistan would budge and began to deliver whatever the US demands? Is it really true that all the problems in Afghanistan are due to Pakistan and if Pakistan would destroy the alleged “Haqqani Network”, the governance, drug, and territorial problems (some US Generals believe that close to 40% of Afghanistan is controlled by the Taliban rebels) would all be resolved? Would Pakistan, by losing $255M, – even if the allegations are correct — punitive actions and myopic statements by some of the US officials, legislatures, and media persons would bring Pakistan to its knees and it would begin to deliver instead of completely pulling its support from the US efforts in Afghanistan?

So then the big question arises; is Afghanistan stabilization the main goal or it is just an excuse to pressure Pakistan to accept some newly created ground realities which the US wants to impose on South Asia to redefine the power equations by containing Chinese and Russian influences and coerce Pakistan in accepting to be a client entity, dominated by its newly imposed leader of the region, namely India? In case Pakistan’s refusal,  would the US try to declare Pakistan as a terrorist and enemy state, and pressurize the world community and financial institutions to strangle Pakistan until it delivers or accept the complete annihilation?  Knowing the sensitivities of the region, this scenario seems far-fetched.

From its inception, the Pakistan leadership was convinced that Pakistan’s survival was in “renting” the country to some big power to counter-balance Indian weight.  The US State Department officials were appraised about the risks Pakistan was facing from the Soviet Union at its Western borders.  The US officials were not too impressed and decided not even to help Pakistan in dealing with huge refugee influx when Pakistan requested some blankets supply.  An Internal memorandum released by the Office for Near Eastern Affairs, clarified the US position, “It was obvious from this approach that Pakistan was thinking in terms of the US as a primary source of military strength, and since this would involve virtual US military responsibility for the new dominion [Pakistan], our reply to Pakistan request was negative.”  However, in 1950 Korean war, the US started looking at Pakistan a potential supporter against the communism and a military ally in the war,  and agreed to add Pakistan in the list of countries where the US decided to the ship surplus wheat, which was causing pricing issues in the US.

In 1954, to woo the US and west further, Pakistan publically demonstrated to be at the same side of the iron curtain as the US and its western allies were, by joining the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and in 1955, Pakistan joined the Baghdad Pact (also known as Central Treaty Organization (CENTO)).  A large number of Pakistanis were against such moves but the government simply ignored the dissent.  The section in Pakistan did not see the sudden love affair from the US as some long-term people-to-people, strategic and economically beneficial relations but they saw it as the transactional relations with Pakistan’s military only and the US help in country’s slow drift towards the military rule.  Their fear was somewhat materialized when the “Technical Assistance Final Report” of Senate Committee on Foreign Relation published in March 1957.  The report concluded, “The US military aid has strengthened Pakistan’s armed services, the greatest single stabilizing force in the country, and has encouraged Pakistan to participate in collective defense arrangements.”

On a visit to the United States in 1954, Ayub Khan, who in 1958 overthrew the civilian government and imposed a Martial Law, told American Brigadier-General Henry A. Byroade “I didn’t come here to look at barracks. Our army can be your army if you want us. But let’s make a decision.” On March 5, 1959, Pakistan and the United States signed a bilateral agreement of defense. According to which the United States agreed to fulfill the defense requirements of Pakistan. The United States also declared that any attack on Pakistan would be considered as an attack on America. The same year in July, Ayub Khan allowed the US to open a CIA and USAF Security Services “listening post” at Badabir, near Peshawar. At one point, there were 800 personals and 500 supporting staff stationed at the base.  Even the Pakistan’s acting Foreign Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was not allowed to visit the base.  Gary Powers, who was shot down and captured over the Soviet Union during the 1960 U-2 spy plane incident, flew its mission from the same airbase.

After the Power’s incident, the US leadership once again tried to woo Indians by advising Pakistani dictator to help in forming a joint defense system with India to assure the safety of subcontinent from the Communist invasion.  When Ayub Khan suggested this to India’s Prime Minister, J. L. Nehru, he outright rejected such offer and made clear to Khan that India did not see the Soviet Union as a threat.  Although, in 1961, when John F. Kennedy was sworn in as 35th President of the United States, the US openly began to demonstrate its interests towards India, however,  In July 1961, the Kennedy administration decided to reward Ayub Khan for the “job well done” and invited him to Washington and gave him the red carpet treatment. Ayub Khan was provided the opportunity – which even Pakistan’s democratically elected leaders rarely had – to address the joint session of the US Congress.  Before his visit to the US, Ayub Khan said: “Pakistan was concerned, upset and disappointed over the United States policy in the region,” Khan said, “The increased aid to India poses a great threat for Pakistan.”  He threatened that Pakistan might pull out of United States backed SEATO pact if the United States would continue its heavy aid to India. During the visit, President Kennedy declared Pakistan “a powerful force for freedom in its area”.  He praised Pakistan as, “a first country who offered support to the United States during Korean War.” President Kennedy also assured Ayub Khan to solve Kashmir problem and also the military aid to Pakistan, which Khan mentioned at his arrival at Karachi.  However, even after working that “closely” with the US, in 1965, when Pakistan launched an incursion across the line of control in the disputed Himalayan region Kashmir, India launched an all-out attack through the International land, air, and maritime borders.  The US not only decided to stay away from its commitments of March 1959 bilateral agreement and pledges of President Kennedy, it also imposed an arms embargo and held $500M economic aid to Pakistan.

When China broke up from Moscow, the US once again saw Pakistan’s importance to get help to open diplomatic channels with the Chinese.  In July 1971, Henery Kissinger had a secret visit to China by Pakistan’s help.  A plane secretly flew from Pakistan and went to China where Chairman Mao Tse Tung and Dr. Kissinger met and a new era of relations between the US and China opened. As a result of elections in December 1970, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was elected and after the 1971 war in which Pakistan lost its Eastern wing, the military dictator resigned due to the pressure of junior ranking generals in the army and handed over the power to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s party, which swept the 1970 elections in West Pakistan.  Although, President Nixon and Bhutto enjoyed close personal relations, but Bhutto’s leaning towards the left-wing politics was not liked by the Americans.  When, in 1974, India tested its first nuclear bomb, Bhutto ordered his scientists and engineers to deliver a weapon for deterrence and began the nuclear program. In January 1977, when Jimmy Carter took the office of the US President, the US-Pakistan relations further deteriorated. President Carter tightened the embargo placed on Pakistan and put pressure on Islamabad through its Ambassador Brig. Gen. Henry Byroade.

The April 1979’s Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, once again brought Pakistan in the limelight in the corridors of power in Washington. Pakistan became once again the “most allied ally”, and the military dictator – Gen. Ziaul Haq, who overthrew Bhutto’s elected government in 1977 — became a statesman.  The US wanted Zia to work with Afghan nationalists under the leadership of former monarch Zahir Shah but Zia had his own agenda.  He wanted to exploit this opportunity to empower the right-wing Muslim extremists so that he could later use them to control Afghanistan and extend their influence in Pakistan.  The US leadership not only turned their blind eye to it but also they supported those extremists. President Reagan dedicated the Space Shuttle launch to the “Afghan Mujahideen” – who became Afghan rebels after achieving Soviet Union’s demise — he even invited their leadership to White House and drew parallels between them and the founding fathers of the US.  Once the Soviets pulled back in 1986 from Afghanistan, Pakistan became once again the pariah state because of its secret nuclear program and it was slapped with another set of sanctions after the famous “Pressler Amendment”, brought by a Republican Senator from South Dakota, Larry Pressler.  The leadership in Washington began to mend its relations with India which was — due to the collapse of Soviet Union – looking towards West to have new allies. Next 10 years during the democratic dispensation in Pakistan, Pakistan was called as the “most sanctioned ally” of the US.

In 1999, when another dictator in Pakistan General Musharraf toppled the elected government, the US President Bill Clinton decided not to shake hand with him in front of cameras during his short visit in Islamabad, however, same Musharraf became the “close friend” to President George W. Bush, when, once again, Pakistan’s services were needed by the US after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001.  President Bush assured Gen. Musharraf that the US would make sure that Pakistan’s interests would be secured, however, after the Taliban government was overthrown, the US launched the Northern Alliance government which was highly hostile towards Pakistan and enjoyed close relations with Pakistan’s old adversary, India.

The fact that Pakistan’s dictator governments’ disastrous foreign policies, hurt not only the people of Pakistan but also affected the neighboring countries, cannot be dismissed.  However, most of these policies pursued by the dictators in Pakistan at the will, training and endorsements of the United States. When the US decided to leave after achieving its objectives, the Pakistan military used those highly trained and war-hardened militants to attain their ambitions in the region.  However, if one looks into the US-Pakistan engagements, there is a pattern, and when the US National Security Advisor, Dr. McMaster argues about possible “benefits” for Pakistan for its unconditional compliance on the US demands, those who know the history, find such statement laughable and farcical.  If really the US wants Pakistan’s assistance in Afghanistan and its cooperation as a strategic ally, the public humiliation and threats would not give any benefit to the US goals.  Afghanistan must not be a tail which wags the dog, as a former CIA station chief in Islamabad, Robert L. Grenier argued in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September 2016, “Long-term US strategic interests in Pakistan, in fact, dwarf those in Afghanistan. Arguably, we have allowed the tail to wag the dog for too long, and it is time to reorient our policy,” he said. “As the US navigates this shift it will have to accept that in many areas, Pakistan and the US will simply have to agree to disagree.” However, if goals are different than what is being told, then the situation in the region would see the paradigm shift and new alliances.  Only time will tell what is coming.