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U.S. and Pakistan — An Unhappy Marriage

ViewPoints: Political science professor Dipak Gupta discusses the relationship between the two countries in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death.
By Dipak Gupta

America’s relationship with Pakistan has always been stormy. In fact, for the past six decades, it has been a marriage of convenience.

As a result, we find each other to be duplicitous and self-serving. A common refrain among Pakistanis is that the United States uses their nation, befriending it when it needs to confront the Soviet Union or al-Qaeda terrorists. When the need is gone, the United States, without an abiding strategic or economic interest, abandons Pakistan with equal alacrity.

From the Pakistani point of view, when it needed U.S. support during its wars with India, its powerful ally was simply AWOL. As a result, the relationship is not based on mutual reliance and respect but on suppressed hostility and duplicitous talks designed to mask an underlying feeling of mutual mistrust.

To be sure, Pakistan was truly ill-served by our all-consuming strategic concerns.

From its very birth, the young nation aligned itself with the Western coalition against the Soviet Union. In return, Pakistan received military and economic aid while it sold its soul. U.S. strategic planners found a chaotic democratic system unreliable and therefore, supported successive dictatorial or authoritarian regimes.

Although religious parties could garner only 3 percent to 6 percent of popular votes in the rare free elections, the extremists always dominated the politics of Pakistan. U.S. policymakers saw the religious fundamentalists as the primary bulwark against the atheist communists.

This trend continued when the religious fundamentalist mujahideens, with the help of the CIA and the Pakistani military, drove away the mighty Soviet military from Afghanistan (al-Qaeda was established to support the mujahideens).

In the ensuing civil war, thanks to Pakistan and tacit approval from the United States, the Taliban came to power.

The Taliban were less interested in developing the common concerns of any modern society and more devoted to the implementing of the Sharia laws, based on their own tribal and conservative Wahhabi interpretation. The state-sponsored misogyny and brutal disregard of human rights of the regime horrified the West, but that did not prompt our military invasion. It took place when the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden and his band of terrorists after the 9/11 attacks.

If the U.S. strategic interest worked against the long-term welfare of the Pakistani people, the nation’s own leaders were far more responsible for its current sorry state of affairs. From the beginning, the Pakistani leaders framed their peoples’ worldview through the rivalry with India. They forgot that it is impossible to build a nation solely on its hatred of another.

As Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., pointed out in a recent interview, “more than Pakistan having a conflict with the United States, it is having a conflict within itself.” Pakistan suffers from all the problems of a developing nation trying to find its national identity. The problems only deepened when its successive leaders cynically decided to stoke religious passion to divert attention from their corrupt and incompetent rule.

Pakistan’s strategic goals have not often matched ours. As we have pursued al-Qaeda and Islamic extremists, some in Pakistani administration have cherry-picked between good and bad terrorists. Those who would take their fight into India or would support the establishment of a supplicant regime in Afghanistan were deemed as assets by the Pakistani military and intelligence establishments.

Our dysfunctional relationship with Pakistan has come to a focal point with the death of bin Laden. While the Obama administration debates the issues, we have to understand that we cannot build a permanent relationship only at times of urgent strategic needs.

Our long-term goals and those of Pakistan will be best developed when we can build our bond without the threat of some external force, communism or terrorism. Our best opportunity to find common interests will not come until we end our military involvement in Afghanistan.

When we do not need Pakistani military assistance to protect the supply route to Afghanistan or to root out the Taliban sanctuaries within Pakistan, we should be able to make an honest assessment of our mutual dependence.

At that point, the Pakistani military establishment would truly comprehend the prospect of an economic disaster if the United States ended financial support. Then we should be able to strengthen the democratic institutions by targeted grants to Pakistan bypassing the military. A true partnership is in the best interest of both the nations and the world. Until then, similar to living through any other dysfunctional relationship, we must muddle through.

Gupta is the Fred J. Hansen Professor of Peace Studies and Distinguished Professor in Political Science at San Diego State University. He is the author of Understanding Terrorism and Political Violence: The Life Cycle of Birth, Growth, Transformation, and Demise.

This was originally published in the
San Diego Union-Tribune on May 12, 2011. Editorial disclaimer: The opinions and views expressed above do not necessarily reflect those of San Diego State University or SDSU NewsCenter.