The US-Pakistan relationship has been in the news a lot lately – at least it was last week, for some reason. So as a backgrounder for our mutual love-hate relationship, I offer up the relevant chapter from my 2002 book Boomerang! Or, How Our Covert Wars Have Created Enemies Across the Middle East and Brought Terror to America. Obviously quite a few things have happened since then, including the assassination of Benizar Bhutto and the ascension of Zardari. But hopefully this provides a little historical context to the relationship.
[See also The Egypt Chapter and The Libya Chapter].
Islam is the reason Pakistan separated from India in the first place. Prior to the British occupation of the Indian subcontinent, the area now known as Pakistan had been a patchwork of small states and principalities. When the British left in 1947, they divided their vast dominion into predominantly Hindu and Muslim areas, creating East and West Pakistan on either side of the state of India. This appeased the demands of the largest Islamic party, the All-Muslim League, who were then in conflict with Jawaharlal Nehru (later India's first prime minister). The problem is that there was no neat way of slicing up the turf, as the communities were intermingled. Many of the local politicians were given the power to decide to which country their region would belong, regardless of the view of the inhabitants. Border disputes were ultimately settled by the chair of the British boundary commission.
The partition was massively painful for both sides; from four to eleven million Hindus and Muslims moved from one state to the other, while hundreds of thousands (some say millions) were slaughtered by militants on either side. Among the messes left by the British Empire was the situation in Kashmir, in which several million Muslims ended up in Indian territory. Periodic wars, skirmishes and guerrilla activity have continued ever since, and both nuclear-armed states vow they will never relinquish their claim to the turf. In 2001, more people were killed every week in Kashmir than in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The other legacy of the British is the Durand Line, which forms the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was drawn to help weaken the rebellious Pashtun tribes, by dividing them between the two territories. Today, while Pashtuns are the majority ethnic group in Afghanistan, more of them live in northern Pakistan. Many have never accepted the Durand Line and call instead for an independent Pashtunistan. Even today, while Pakistan has repeatedly suppressed Pashtun nationalism, the province retains a semi-autonomous status and a porous border with the Afghan north.
Pakistan has alternated between relatively weak civilian governments and military juntas, but the military has always been the main power in the country. US military aid began in 1954, with Pakistan joining regional NATO-like alliances SEATO and the Baghdad Pact. That same year a “constitutional coup” took place when Pakistan’s fractious Constituent Assembly was dissolved. A new assembly was elected not by the general population but by provincial leaders, who established a constitution two years later. But general elections were never held before General Ayub Khan took over in a 1958 military coup.
Under Ayub Khan the constitution was suspended, regional and national parliaments were dissolved, and martial law was imposed for four years. In 1962 a new constitution was written and Ayub the dictator became Ayub the president. That same year, during a border dispute between China and India, the US 7th Fleet, complete with aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, began patrolling the Indian Ocean as a show of force. Even if this was a message directed at the Chinese, it made the Indians nervous. A few years later the US set up a military base on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, helpfully cleared of its original inhabitants by their British landlords. The Diego Garcia base, later used in the Afghan and Gulf War campaigns, was armed with missiles in range of the Indian subcontinent. Many in India felt that Washington might not have been so bold if New Delhi were a nuclear power as well. This helped to set in motion India’s push to build a nuclear bomb, and Pakistan’s in response.
In 1965 India and Pakistan went to war over Kashmir but neither side could make much headway and it ended in a stalemate and a cease-fire negotiated by the USSR. Opposition to Ayub Khan’s rule grew following the war debacle despite (or because of) strict press censorship and his control of key politicians in the parliament. By 1969 this opposition had grown to the point of rioting in the streets and the breakdown of local authority, particularly in the East. Ayub Khan passed his power over to General Yahya Khan (no relation; “Khan” is an honorary title), who once again imposed martial law.
Disaffection in Bengali-speaking East Pakistan over distant rule by the Urdu-speaking West had been simmering for years. In the 1970 elections, Bengalis voted as a unified bloc, gaining a parliamentary majority, which they intended to use in rectifying past grievances. Yahya was caught by surprise and reacted by putting off the convening of the assembly and arresting a key Bengali leader. Not surprisingly, this caused the situation in the East to escalate, resulting in the 1971 declaration of independence by Bangladesh.
With the tacit approval of the Nixon administration, Yahya Khan used his US-made arsenal to brutally crack down on the independence movement. Thousands were slaughtered in the first few days. By the time it was over, ten million Bengalis had fled into India, and an estimated 1.5 million were killed. The secessionists also killed some 150,000 non-Bengalis in the East before independence was achieved.
Yahya Khan’s genocide against the Bengalis was carefully planned and took place after a lengthy and well-organized military buildup of West Pakistan forces in the East – with US-supplied weapons, of course. The regime in Islamabad (West Pakistan’s custom-built capital) planned the systematic assassination of political and cultural leaders in Bangladesh, and an indiscriminate campaign of mass murder and ethnic cleansing, which is exactly what occurred beginning on March 25, 1971. The US State Department had recommended a few weeks earlier that America use its influence to dissuade Yahya from the use of force. This suggestion was rejected by Henry Kissinger. His boss President Nixon regarded Yahya warmly, and had been using him for back-channel communications in forging a new relationship with China. Kissinger's deputy Winston Lord explained, "We had to demonstrate to China that we respect a mutual friend." What was demonstrated instead, as author Christopher Hitchens put it, was that " a perceived need to mollify China outweighed even the most minimal concern for human life elsewhere."
Despite clear intelligence regarding Islamabad’s intentions, no warnings were passed to Bangladesh. As Kissinger put it, Nixon “doesn’t want to do anything…He does not favor a very active policy.” This "passivity" extended to the policy on arms sales as well. The rest of the world expressed horror over the months-long orgy of violence in Bangladesh, but the Nixon administration kept silent, following the president's order not to "squeeze Yahya at this time." Finally world opinion led the US to announce a ban on further arms sales, but the key word was “further.” While the slaughter continued, shiploads of US arms continued to sail into Pakistani ports for another nine months, until the entire $15 million of previously-ordered weapons had been delivered. According to the Nixon Administration, cutting off arms shipments would have been “an unwarranted intrusion into an essentially internal problem.”
The war finally ended when India intervened on behalf of the Bengalis to stop the bloodbath and the refugee flow on its eastern border. In response the US sent nuclear warships into the Bay of Bengal for another show of force. This led in turn to India’s first nuclear test and an arms race on the subcontinent.
Condemnation of Yahya Khan both inside and outside of Pakistan led to his downfall. Upon his resignation Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who had led opposition to Ayub, became president. Bhutto tilted Pakistani politics in a populist direction, founding the Pakistani People’s Party (PPP) under the slogan of “food, clothing and shelter.”
Bhutto pursued an independent foreign policy, maintaining friendly relations with US allies like the Shah of Iran and US enemies like Salvador Allende of Chile. In 1975 he began military support of Islamic rebels in Afghanistan, worried that the Daoud regime was too friendly with the USSR - and also that Daoud had designs on Pashtun lands in northern Pakistan. Many of the Islamic militants nurtured by Pakistan, including Massoud, Hekmatyar and Rabbani, would go on to be leaders of the US-backed Afghan war against the USSR.
The US had reason to be both pleased and displeased with Bhutto, but one factor may have tipped the equation towards the latter: the “Islamic Bomb.” It was Bhutto who coined the term, and extracted money from oil-rich Gulf sheikhs in order to counter India’s first nuclear test in 1974. Still, if Bhutto’s Pakistan had been a favored ally like Israel or South Africa, it’s doubtful that the nuclear program would have been an issue.
In his memoirs, Henry Kissinger calls Bhutto a “steady friend of the United States” who acted with “panache and wisdom” but who eventually “destroyed himself by seeking a popular mandate too rapidly” (whatever that means). In his 1979 memoirs, “If I Am Assassinated,” Bhutto paints a slightly different picture. He says that Kissinger told him that he should “either give up the idea of a nuclear bomb or we will make of you a horrible example for the entire Islamic world.” This was no idle threat, nor was the title of Bhutto’s book mere self-aggrandizement; it was written from death row, where he was later executed.
After the PPP won the 1977 elections with a huge majority, Bhutto was overthrown in a military coup. Two years later, despite protests by Jimmy Carter, Leonid Brezhnev and Pope John Paul II, he was put to death after a rigged show trial. Bhutto had antagonized his country’s economic elites through his reform agenda, and the military elites through his growing authoritarianism. Some have charged that the CIA backed the coup led by General Zia al-Huq. Officially, the US deplored Bhutto’s execution and imposed sanctions in 1978 for the nuclear program. But behind the scenes, President Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski made the decision in 1979 to funnel US aid to Islamic guerrillas in Afghanistan (eight months before the Soviet invasion), using Zia’s regime as a secret conduit.
From that point on, Zia’s fortunes were on the rise. Bhutto may have been Pakistan’s most popular leader, and Zia its most hated; he presided over the longest period of martial law in its history. But Zia had friends where it counts: in Washington. During his eleven years in power, ties between the CIA and its Pakistani counterpart, the ISI, became much stronger. Some six billion dollars in aid to the Afghan rebels, or mujahedin, was funneled through the ISI.
In the process the most ruthless elements of the movement were strengthened, and the Pakistan- Afghan border became the home to most of the world’s heroin production. CIA support for the mujahedin helped to strengthen conservative forces and weaken the left, both in Pakistan and in Afghanistan. It also helped bolster Zia’s program of Islamization. Pakistan’s Islamic parties have never won a significant share of the vote in free elections, but Zia’s 11-year dictatorship dramatically increased their influence.
When the war against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan was over, the US cash pipeline was shut down; Washington let Islamabad continue to serve as its regional proxy, with more latitude but fewer resources. Afghanistan was left in a state of anarchy, poverty and misery, and continued to be engulfed in civil war. The effects of this spilled across the border into Pakistan, and the culture of drugs, guns and religious extremism affected much of the border areas. While there had been almost no heroin addicts in Pakistan before the war, afterwards there were some four million. There were also more than two million Afghan refugees on Pakistani soil. All of this thanks to the CIA's love affair with General Zia, who had by that time outlived his usefulness.
Zia was killed in a plane crash in 1988, which few regarded as an accident. Elections later that year brought Bhutto’s daughter Benazir Bhutto to power. She made efforts to mend fences with the omnipresent military, and moved away from her father’s economic populism by agreeing to austerity plans recommended by the IMF and World Bank, which then weakened her popular support. But Bhutto was deposed after less than two years in office following disputes with military leaders over internal security in the Sindh and Punjab provinces.
During the 1990s Pakistan experienced a spate of political crises, with four elected governments in a row cut short by the military, culminating in the coup of 1999. Nawaz Sharif succeeded Benazir Bhutto until he too was deposed by the military in 1993. Then Bhutto was returned to power following elections held by a caretaker government. In 1996 Bhutto was again deposed, following corruption allegations against her husband (he remains in jail and Bhutto is in exile). Subsequently Sharif returned to power for three more years. Finally in 1999 the military again resumed control after the second Sharif regime had lost all credibility. When he tried to dismiss the head of the army General Pervez Musharraf, the latter took over in a bloodless coup. Musharraf declared a national emergency, suspended the constitution, and broadly curtailed civil and political rights.
In fact the military and the ISI had been the most powerful elements in Pakistan all along. Bhutto complained that she had been left in the dark about many elements of the nuclear weapons program even when she was supposedly the head of government. Despite the 1978 sanctions, the US never made much fuss about the Islamic Bomb as long as Zia’s help was needed against the Soviets. But in 1990 the sanctions were strengthened, to the point that the US refused to deliver F-16 aircraft for which Pakistan had already paid $600 million. While Bhutto was able to negotiate delivery of some military hardware, to this day neither the money nor the planes have gone to Pakistan.
During Bhutto’s second government the ISI began funding the Taliban movement which had grown among war orphans educated in Saudi-financed religious schools in the border region (most had no other choice for schooling since IMF austerity had helped to decimate public schools in Pakistan). The Pakistani trucking mafia was tired of the ongoing civil war in Afghanistan, which required endless tolls paid to various warlords. The Clinton administration was also looking for stability in Afghanistan in order to facilitate a pipeline agreement connecting Pakistan and Turkmenistan favored by the US oil company Unocal. The overlapping agendas of the ISI, the Saudis, the US and various economic entities helped to bring the Taliban to power in Kabul in 1995. But the Taliban proved to be unreliable allies.
When the US decided to go to war against the Taliban regime in 2001, Pakistan’s help was required once again. But Musharraf's military government was stuck between a rock and a hard place. The ISI continued to be one of the main sponsors of the Taliban, and assisting in an attack on Afghanistan would enrage Islamist forces both within the military and in civil society as well. But Washington would not take no for an answer. After a few days’ hesitation, Musharraf agreed to host US forces for the war. He was rewarded with billions of dollars in loan forgiveness. But the long-term effects of the war may further destabilize Pakistan.
Millions more refugees have poured across the Afghan border, including unknown numbers of Taliban and al-Qaida fighters. Pakistan’s hated enemies the Northern Alliance are in control of most of Afghanistan, and Musharraf has little to show for his support of the US. Over the past decade the poverty rate in Pakistan has doubled, from 17.2% to 35%.
Press reports have indicated that members of the ISI and Pakistani nuclear scientists have been supportive of the al-Qaida network. In fact, one ISI official was forced out after it was learned he had funneled cash to Mohammed Atta, reputed leader of the 9/11 hijackers. Al-Qaida fighters have also assisted Pakistan in the ongoing jihad against Indian sovereignty in Kashmir.
Though Musharraf has attempted to purge Islamist elements in his government and in the streets, he must also mollify them; it’s unclear whether he will be able remain in control. In December 2001, after ISI-linked terrorists attacked the Indian parliament, the two nations were brought nearly to the brink of nuclear war. Soon after, the Wall Street Journal's correspondent Daniel Pearl was abducted and murdered by a group also linked to the ISI – as well as to al-Qaida.
In May of 2002, US forces officially brought the war across Pakistan's borders, something that had been previously denied in deference to Musharraf's political dilemma. This did not stop him from claiming a 98% mandate in a rigged "referendum" granting him another five years in power, but the heavy-handedness of the ploy suggests he's not a secure as he claims. Eager to remain useful to his patrons, Musharraf was also quick to sign on to the revived Afghan pipeline deal with that country's interim leader Hamid Karzai.
But once Pakistan’s help is no longer needed, the question of the Islamic Bomb may again complicate relations with Washington. The US has shown it is certainly not averse to "regime change" when it so desires, but the political pressures rocking General Musharraf would not disappear under any successor. The billions of dollars with which the CIA nurtured Islamic radicalism in Pakistan may come back to haunt us more than once. As the history of this and other chapters shows, we have nurtured radical Islamic forces to pursue foreign policy goals in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan…all the while financing those who impose economic hardship on their populations, for example in Jordan, Pakistan and Egypt. Is it any surprise when these very forces– which increasingly are the only means for protesting our policies – come back to attack us?