Back to top

Pakistan and the US: a relation of cultural disharmony

An evening last month hosted by the City Circle at the Abrar Islamic Foundation saw an audience gathered for a panel discussion on the unhappy relations between Pakistan and the US. The panel was comprised of Jonathan Paris, a political analyst affiliated to various organisations (notably the South Asia Centre for the Atlantic Council), Muhammad Nafees Zakaria, the current Deputy High Commissioner (DHC) at the Pakistan High Commission in London, and Clive Stafford Smith, the founder of Reprieve, a charity working against human rights violations, recently having taken up a campaign to increase international public awareness of the injustice of the US drone attacks in Pakistan.      

In appreciating the nature of the conversation that took place, it is noteworthy that Pakistan was (so to speak) diplomatically represented whilst the US was not. The talk was mostly driven by a critical view of the US, shared by independent thinkers Paris and Smith largely aligned to the Pakistani perception. This perception was brought to fore the strongest by the DHC’s address to the audience. As a result, what largely came to surface was the problem of a cultural inconsistency between Pakistan’s and perhaps the US’s understanding of what constitutes a fair or good inter-state relationship.

Paris began the discussion outlining the trajectory of affairs between the two nations up to the present, which critically showed the US as having always used Pakistan as only a means to achieving its external self-interests. This was first attempted some fifty years ago by co-opting Pakistan as an ally to stop Soviet Communism; then unofficially supporting Pakistan in the 1971 war against India as an opportunity to extend its commerciality with China; Pakistan co-operated as a US ally again to defeat the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979-89); and up until now, since the September 2001 attacks, as the US’s most important ally against ‘terrorism’. This opportunistic history of alliance was, overall, the point of dissatisfaction expressed by the DHC. Furthermore, the DHC explained that the military costs of supporting and serving the US-led NATO operations against terrorism – to which most if not all of US aid to Pakistan goes - have been to the serious detriment of domestic spending and infrastructural development in Pakistan.

In light of this and according to the DHC’s ‘personal view’, Pakistan has been selfishly ‘abandoned’ as a consequence of US’s exploitative approach. Pakistan appeals for a more mutually beneficial future that requires the US – as the global power with, therefore, a global responsibility – to genuinely care about the prosperity of its co-opted partner beyond the horizon of self-gain. A sustainable and meaningful relationship is built on true mutual respect. 

This requires, not least, respecting the equal right to sovereignty held by all nations in their land – meaning the US, its patience if tested whilst pursuing the defeat of its perceived enemies, should not physically infringe into another nation’s territory (namely Pakistan’s) without that nation’s consent just because it is in a position of strength to do so (to refer to the drone attacks and the killing of Osama). This offence is worsened by the dehumanising attitude of the US forces to that nation’s people – with little care for discriminating between ‘civilian’ and ‘terrorist’ (this was shown clearly by Reprieve’s presentation on the drone attacks).

As the talk concluded, the underlying issue appears to be a missing common cultural ground of human decency. The US’s need to reclaim its original stability and strength on the global stage inevitably spills over into the abuse of its power. Pakistan’s view is that the US should seek to pursue this with a frame of mind different to that of its past.        

With this important and apparently simple message, it is also well to bear in mind the backdrop of Pakistan’s perplexing internal political scene (a longstanding problem). Recent affairs are further highlighting the uneasy struggle over power continuing between Pakistan’s civil government and its military and ISI (with ‘terrorist’ organisations probably representing a third influence). This internal conflict actually appears to be compelled by the drawing in of the US. The comment by a therapist in the audience criticising the DHC’s emotive language (‘abandoned’, ‘dumped’) for revealing a misplaced dependency on the US seemed to indicate that in place of the confidence of the Pakistani people (which is lacking), it is the US that has become a strategic element competed over in a psychological political battle between Pakistan’s civil and military bodies (heightened by the perception of India too as a competitor). (This might put into some perspective the eluding clarification by the DHC – who represents the civil government - that he is expressing only his ‘personal view’ and not that of the government). It is the military that currently holds the troubled (some argue duplicitous) ‘alliance’ with the US upon the terms of fighting the US’s war on terrorism. And judging from Pakistan’s political past and present, it looks like any US support extended to the civil body is liable to be regarded as an internal threat by it.      

Varun Verma is currently an intern at the Muslim Institute with an MA from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.