Pakistanis often complain that the United States is a fair-weather friend: American leaders can be generous and even deferential when Washington needs Islamabad’s assistance but the moment the United States no longer does, it can be punitive toward Pakistan.
Frankly, such criticisms are correct. Pakistan has long been America’s second choice. Upon the 1947 partition of India, American policymakers wanted to ally with both India and Pakistan to create a bulwark against communism. With hundreds of thousands if not millions killed, many more displaced, and the Kashmir dispute growing, though, neither Pakistan nor India were interested in working together. President Harry S. Truman claimed neutrality though Pakistanis suspected he was tilting toward India. In October 1947, for example, the State Department rejected Pakistan’s request for $2 billion in financial and military aid. Pakistani leaders also felt slighted when, in October 1949, Truman invited Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to visit Washington, without offering a similar invitation to Pakistan’s leader.
Truman never saw Pakistan’s demand for equal treatment as realistic. India was four times Pakistan’s size in both area and population. It enjoyed stable democratic institutions. Its victory over Pakistan in the 1947–1948 war reinforced its importance in the Cold War context. Americans hailed Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru as pioneers of freedom. Pakistan, in contrast, struggled with domestic strife. The sudden death of its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah just over a year after independence left a leadership vacuum. Nor were American officials blind to the anti-Americanism that many Pakistani intellectuals embraced. In September 1947, one junior Pakistani official quipped, Now we have cleaned out the Hindus, we are going to clean out you Americans. U.S. recognition of Israel the following year exacerbated Pakistani anti-Americanism. If forced to choose a single Cold War ally, the choice for the White House was clear: India would be a better ally.
Unfortunately, for the United States, India had other ideas. Nehru wanted to center India as the leader of the non-aligned movement. In reality, this meant moving India closer to the Soviet sphere of influence. Pakistan had three choices for its orientation: non-alignment; join the Soviet camp; or seek partnership with the West. The first option was a non-starter because Pakistan could not compete with India for leadership of the non-aligned movement and did not want to be subordinate to it. The second also was no good as the Soviets actively cultivated India as the more powerful and strategically important of the two states. Pakistani leaders, therefore, swallowed their pride and pursued an alliance with the United States in order to have a Cold War patron to defend its security against the backdrop of border disputes with both India and Afghanistan. At the same time, as Truman failed to win India’s support in his efforts to craft an anti-Communist bloc, Washington turned its attention to Pakistan. On May 3, 1950, Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan became the first Pakistani leader to visit Washington. In effect, the U.S. approach was akin to asking the prettiest girl in high school to the prom and, only after rejection, asking the ugly girl in a bond born not of infatuation or love, but rather desperation. A mutual resentment has permeated the subsequent bilateral relationship both because Pakistan understands it was and always will be America’s second choice and also because, both during the Cold War and after, the United States and Pakistan did not share a common goal: During the Cold War, America’s goal was containing Soviet expansion, but Pakistan’ chief nemesis lay to the east, where Pakistani forces stared down their Indian counterparts. This came to a head in 1965, when Pakistan sought American support against India in a war that Pakistan claimed (falsely) that India had started. The United States, already embroiled in Vietnam, refused. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, the same dynamic persisted: After 9/11, the United States prioritized the fight against Islamist terror. Pakistani authorities played along but were much more concerned with the possibility that Afghanistan could become a hub for ethnonationalism.
Exacerbating distrust is American historical amnesia. While Pakistanis are acutely aware of their history, Americans largely have historical amnesia for any event outside the past decade. This leads to another Pakistani grievance: The tendency of America to act as a fair-weather friend. The United States embraces Pakistan and demands solidarity when Washington needs Islamabad, but turns on a dime to punish Pakistan when the United States no longer needs it.
Here, Pakistan’s nuclear program comes into play. Pakistan initiated its nuclear program in 1955 and, a decade later, inaugurated its first nuclear reactor with U.S. assistance. Pakistani leaders were already determined to build a nuclear weapon. In 1965, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, at the time Pakistan’s foreign minister, declared, If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass and live, can even go hungry. But we will get one for our own. We have no alternative. Pakistan’s loss of Bangladesh in the 1971 war strengthened the resolve of Bhutto who had since become martial law administrator. On January 20, 1972, he launched Project 706 to develop an atom bomb.
The Ford administration sought quietly to compel Pakistan to stop its nuclear weapons program without avail. After Fred Iklé, director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, told the Senate’s Subcommittee on Arms Control that Pakistan sought to build a nuclear weapon against India, Bhutto was defiant: No individual or State had a right to dictate another sovereign and independent state like Pakistan.
President Jimmy Carter’s emphasis on nonproliferation, however, caused the diplomatic quarrel to go public. Congress quickly moved to ban economic and military assistance to Pakistan, with both the Symington and Glenn Amendments. While the president could theoretically waive the sanctions, Carter chose not to do so. Only the Soviet invasion changed Carter’s mind. The same pattern repeated during the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush eras. When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, George H.W. Bush’s administration refused to certify under the terms of the 1985 Pressler Amendment that Pakistan was not working on a nuclear weapon. Likewise, after Pakistan’s 1998 nuclear tests, Clinton imposed sanctions under the terms of the Glenn Amendment. Only when the United States needs Pakistan’s logistical support in 2001 were these sanctions waived.
The question for Pakistan, now, is whether the same pattern will continue. With Biden embracing Trump’s policy of unilateral withdrawal, the United States will soon no longer need Pakistan. Neither the White House nor Congress will be inclined to sweep irritants in bilateral relations—primarily, the sponsorship of terror by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence—under the rug. This could lead rather quickly to efforts within Congress to pressure the State Department to designate Pakistan a state sponsor of terror. Diplomats and the State Department’s internal Pakistan lobby may dismiss such a notion, but a combination of Pakistani triumphalism amidst the backdrop of U.S. withdrawal and any subsequent Taliban atrocities will ignite public opinion and lead American politicians to take symbolic action. Pakistan should be prepared to join a club putting them alongside Iran, Syria, and North Korea.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). You can follow him on Twitter: @mrubin1971.