Pak-US Relations: Conflicting Perspectives

By Kabir Altaf

The incident last week at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in which NATO air strikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers has brought Pakistan-US relations to their lowest ebb since the OBL raid. The public reaction in both countries has revealed the extent of the mistrust between the supposed allies. The American public feels that since the US government gives Pakistan so much aid, it is ungrateful of the Pakistani government to block NATO’s supplies or ask the US to vacate airbases in the country.  Americans are also angered by reports of Pakistan’s alleged double-dealing and at best grudging cooperation with Washington.  The Pakistani public, on the other hand, is angered by what they see as violations of their country’s sovereignty. They also feel that fighting “America’s war” has caused a lot of blowback in their country, leading to the deaths of thousands of innocents at the hand of insurgents.

Reading the newspapers from both sides, one gets a sense of how different the narrative is in each country. The articles in The New York Times are accompanied by images of groups of bearded men burning the American flag or effigies of President Obama. If one didn’t know any better, it would be easy to form the opinion that these photographs represent the average Pakistani. The text of these articles focuses on the double-dealing of the Pakistani government and especially of the country’s armed forces. The reader comments frequently feature Americans arguing that Pakistan is the real enemy of the US and that Pakistanis are supporting Al-Qaeda.

Pakistani newspapers tell a completely different story. The Express Tribune, for example, recently featured a slideshow of anti-NATO protests around the country.  The slideshow included images of student protests at Punjab University in Lahore. The protesters included young women, some clad in burqas and others in shalwar-kameez.  The boys were also clean-cut and were holding signs in English.  If images such as these were published in the US media, Americans would have a much harder time imagining Pakistanis as the “Other”, as strange religious fanatics who “hate us for our freedoms”.  Pakistani newspapers also portray NATO as the aggressor, killing our innocent and brave soldiers. As Foreign Minister Khar recently told NPR, this latest incident is not the first time that NATO has killed Pakistani soldiers. Rather, this is the eighth time that the country has suffered casualties due to friendly fire.  The reader comments on the Pakistani side reveal the depth of anger against the US and frustration with the national government which is seen as being in bed with Washington, to the detriment of the nation’s interests.

Americans and Pakistanis also have different ideas about the historical context of the bilateral relationship. For the average American, the US-Pakistan association began after September 11, 2001. They don’t understand why Pakistan is a reluctant ally. They believe that the US should be getting better results for the billions of dollars that have been given to Pakistan over the last decade.  Why, they ask, should we continue to give aid to Pakistan if they are not delivering the results that they promised?  However, for Pakistanis, the US-Pakistan connection did not commence just 10 years ago.  Pakistanis remember how involved the US was during the first Afghan War, how Washington cooperated with General Zia’s government in funding the mujahideen and using radical Islam to defeat the Soviets.  Once the Soviets were defeated, the Americans packed up and went home, leaving Pakistan to deal with the consequences of the war–the refugees, the drug addicts, the former mujahideen not fit for anything except war.  Not only that, but the US also placed economic sanctions on Pakistan as a punishment for testing nuclear weapons. Given this history, many Pakistanis feel justified in mistrusting the US and believing that once Washington withdraws from Afghanistan in 2014, Pakistan will once again be abandoned and forced to deal with the consequences of US activities in the region. In such a scenario, some Pakistanis wonder why the army shouldn’t hedge its bets and retain ties with some Taliban factions who may once again come to power in a post-war Afghanistan.

As for the issue of US aid to Pakistan, the perception among many Pakistanis is that this money is not really aid but payment to the Pakistani military for services rendered.  This “aid” does not buy the Americans the right to attack Pakistan whenever they please or to use unmanned drones to kill innocent residents of the tribal areas. Though the CIA claims that no civilians have died in drone attacks, Pakistanis believe this claim is not true and many people have been killed for no other crime than for living in FATA.   Many Pakistanis argue that instead of US aid, they would rather their country be treated as an equal and be respected by the international community.

The US-Pakistan relationship will remain distrustful and transactional unless the citizens and governments of the two countries engage in constructive dialogue and attempt to understand each other’s viewpoints. Pakistanis need to understand why Americans are so frustrated with the relationship while Americans need to understand why Pakistanis feels so disrespected and fear that once the US achieves its objectives in Afghanistan, Pakistan will once again be abandoned.

Kabir Altaf attended the Lahore University of Management Sciences and graduated from George Washington University.


  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 06:56h, 11 December Reply

    One of the central arguments in this analysis is that when it comes to the Pak-US relationship, Americans have short memories while Pakistanis have long memories.

    My question to Kabir and other readers is why that might be the case? It would be interesting to probe this aspect of selective memories further. Is this an innate attribute of people, some having longer memories than others, or could there be other possible explanations for the phenomenon?

  • Sohail
    Posted at 14:43h, 11 December Reply

    Kabir has analyzed the situation very well. The question remains that how to get the message across to each other. Secondly, would it matter if some members of the general public got the message. Decisions are made on the basis of national (read personal) interest.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:31h, 11 December

      Sohail: You have asked an interesting question. Does it matter if the general public gets the message? Based on experience we have come to feel not but the Occupy Wall Street movement has begun to change some deep-seated beliefs. Here is how Noam Chomsky sees the new scenario:

      Something must be done in a disciplined, sustained way, and soon. It won’t be easy to proceed. There will be hardships and failures – it’s inevitable. But unless the process that’s taking place here and elsewhere in the country and around the world continues to grow and becomes a major force in society and politics, the chances for a decent future are bleak.

      You can’t achieve significant initiatives without a large, active, popular base. It’s necessary to get out into the country and help people understand what the Occupy movement is about – what they themselves can do, and what the consequences are of not doing anything.

  • Jamshed Syed
    Posted at 18:14h, 12 December Reply

    I don’t think there is any hope for a better understanding between the two countries. Pakistanis in general mistrust US intentions and motives and they have reasons to think that way as is evident from Kabir’s analysis. Problems are solved if both parties are willing to recognize the situations and are willing to do something about it. US has no interest in understanding Pakistanis sentiments. It is not that they don’t care about Pakistan, it’s just that they perceive the situation differently. Why US should pay attention to this subject? Pakistan has minimal strategic importance , economy is depended on aid, no influence within US. We have a old saying that necessity is a mother of invention. US has to feel the necessity and I suspect they don’t think that way and it’s not encouraging.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 10:34h, 13 December

      Jamshed: I would have to disagree with you. The area that now constitutes Pakistan has a had a high strategic interest since the days of the Great Game between the Russians and the British. It continues to retain that importance which is why governments favorably disposed to Western interests have been kept alive on aid. The US is desperate to continue the relationship despite the opposition of its own and Pakistan’s population for strategic reasons. Given this fact, we have to explain the puzzle why the US does not understand Pakistani sentiments better? Yes, the US does perceive the situation differently. We have to dig into the nature of that difference. It does not stem from a lack of attention bcause Pakistan has no strategic importance.

  • Jamshed Syed
    Posted at 17:13h, 14 December Reply

    Please educate me on this subject of “high strategic interests and strategic reasons”. What interests? Pakistan have no oil, no gold mines, no beautiful girls. Do you mean to say if US goes on war with some Pakistan’s neighboring countries, they want a friend there? US has a good relations with China and India. Are you saying you never know what might happens in these relationships? Really, I am not clear on this concept of Strategic importance. To me it’s a myth unless you say it’s otherwise.I understand the reasons behind Israel and US relationship. But, not in this case. No comprendey.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 14:12h, 15 December

      Jamshed: As you well know, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If Pakistan were not strategically important, the US would not put up with so much nonsense. Its desperation to maintain the relationship against so much domestic opposition is itself an indication of how strategically important Pakistan is considered. In the case of Pakistan, it has never been oil or gold; it has always been location, location, location. Read any American analyst and you will get a sense of the implications of the location. As for girls, one can only revert to Akbar Allahabadi:

      mom kii putliyoN par aisii tabeea’t pighlii
      chaman-e Hind kii pariyoN kii adaa bhool gaye

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 12:00h, 16 December Reply

    Here is a very detailed article about the Pak-US relationship that elaborates many of the points made by Kabir in his summary:

    If you survey informed Americans, you will hear Pakistanis described as duplicitous, paranoid, self-pitying and generally infuriating. In turn, Pakistanis describe us as fickle, arrogant, shortsighted and chronically unreliable.

    Neither country’s caricature of the other is entirely wrong, and it makes for a relationship that is less in need of diplomacy than couples therapy, which customarily starts by trying to see things from the other point of view. While the Pakistanis have hardly been innocent, they have a point when they say America has not been the easiest of partners.

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