WHEN a political leader makes a dubious statement about a foreign conspiracy to oust him, it’s hardly surprising. Most politicians have a tenuous relationship with the truth. But what is amazing is that an overwhelming majority of people in Pakistan have long believed such claims, largely focusing on the United States.
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Here’s how the argument goes. Historically, the United States has preferred a certain type of government in Pakistan, such as military rule, to serve its security and strategic interests. As the lifespan of these governments began and ended with connection to the United States, Washington had to bring them to power and remove them when they were no longer needed, it is argued.
The reality is that political dynamics in Pakistan have almost always operated quite autonomously, and the main, but not always the only, spur to the rise and fall of governments has been internal, not external. Ziaul Haq’s regime was already there before the Afghan jihad and the revival of US-Pakistani relations; in fact, he had pariah status due to the 1977 coup, the execution of an elected prime minister, and Pakistan’s quest for nuclear weapons. It was during Zia’s time that Pakistan was sanctioned in 1979. But with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Zia became a famous leader in the West. Although Washington’s support for him began to waver before his death, his “regime” survived.
Previously, President Ayub Khan had challenged US interests in South Asia by opening up to China. With the war adventure of 1965, he fell out of favor with US President Johnson. But he continued to rule for another four years. Yahya Khan was ignored until he helped organize the US-China rendezvous. General Musharraf had been isolated for two good years until 9/11. American re-engagement continued well beyond him.
US-Pakistan relations are not only driven by America’s needs.
It seems that the United States has dropped the coup case. Undoubtedly, he always acts to gain and maintain his influence in other countries where his vital interests are at stake, but whether he is always secretly making or breaking governments is debatable. Instead, he went to war, used the weapon of sanctions and supported mass movements for change like the so-called color revolutions, all in plain sight.
Where its interests are not critical but still important, as in Pakistan, the United States also tries to influence and sometimes manipulate politics. But he does so through established diplomatic messages, often in coercive language that comes naturally to Washington. It also exploits the vulnerability of a regime without having to change it or issue written threats of change.
Pakistan’s elitist, military-led, feudal-dominated idea of “organization” has long had the United States as its external pillar. To its credit, from 1954 to 1965, the United States enhanced Pakistan’s defense capabilities and economic development potential, and helped launch the platform for progress. But that was the last time the United States really helped Pakistan. After that, neither Pakistan nor US-Pakistan relations were the same.
Pakistan’s poor policy choices and endemic governance crisis have since made it too dependent on external financiers like the United States and Saudi Arabia who have used it for their own strategic ends. The United States may no longer be the external pillar of the system, but it remains a crutch, a potential strategic and financial threat, and the greatest trading partner.
It is a relationship necessary for the country but vital for the military regimes, a mixed market for the civil exemptions but much more for the military leaders. No wonder successive governments in Pakistan have desired closer ties with the United States, reflecting the leadership dependency syndrome more than Washington’s control of Pakistan.
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The US-Pakistan relationship is not only driven by America’s needs. It is driven in equal measure by the needs of Pakistan. The current US need for Pakistan is not severe enough for Washington to call for drastic regime change action. It is in fact the interests of the establishment that dominate in Pakistan. He continues to have a soft corner for Washington and is seen as managing internal dynamics to achieve his desired goals that serve the interests of both countries. The United States does not need to overthrow any government.
The Pakistani elite may have failed the Pakistani people, but not themselves. Over the decades, they have skillfully fought battles for power while maintaining the system that supports them in power. The “organizing” idea of Pakistan that they presided over belongs to them and is operated by them, not by foreign powers.
The writer, a former ambassador, is an assistant professor at Georgetown University and a visiting senior scholar at the National University of Singapore.
Posted in Dawn, April 12, 2022