Pakistan's "Special Relationship" with the U.S.
By Ayesha Jalal, professor of History, Tufts University; co-author of Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy.

On the eve of a long-awaited general election in the late 1950s - the first ever to be scheduled in Pakistan's history - the U.S. ambassador in Karachi coined a colourful metaphor which captures the essence of the `special relationship' the U.S. has enjoyed with Pakistan: `in Pakistan we have an unruly horse by the tail and are confronted with the dilemma of trying to tame it before we can let go safely... I have the uneasy feeling that far from being tamed, this horse we assumed to be so friendly has actually grown wilder of late.' 
The promised general election was not held until 1970. On October 8, 1958, the already precariously off-balance politician was thrown off the horse and the general placed in the saddle. It was the first but not the last time that the horse felt the crack of the martial whip. 
The device of historical allegro is indispensable in order to fathom the nature of Pakistan's relations with the U.S. over the past five decades or so. So long as the containment of communism remained the bedrock of American foreign police. Washington saw no difficulty aligning itself with Pakistan. Hooker A. Doolittle, the U.S. consul-general, put it bluntly in 1948. Muslims might be 'retrograde, uninformed, venal' and given to 'arrogance' but 'an accident of geography... ha[d] put them in parts of the world critical to [U.S.] interests.' 
Pakistan at that time was not only the largest Muslim state in the world but 'a potential ally' of America. What was more, Pakistan had men at the helm of state affairs who were infinitely more acceptable than the 'tortuous Hindu who despises as he grovels before or politely infuriates by obfuscation the unclean European.' 
Kashmir, the consul-general asserted, was geographically, religiously and 'so far as ignorance and Oriental squalor permit, sentimentally ... part of Pakistan.' Supporting Pakistan's claims on Kashmir would 'compromise... [the U.S.'] standing with the far greater and richer India... but... so, what?' A policy of neutrality towards the South Asian subcontinent would result in chaos, paving the way for the forward march of communism. Since Britain's influence was receding, the U.S. had to use her 'prestige' and 'fantastic industrial capacity' to counter all 'insidious propaganda' against the principles Americans held most dear. 
Signs of Washington's willingness to do a deal with Pakistan, leaving India out of the reckoning, was sneered at by the British foreign office. The Americans could be 'very rash and stupid about these things,' but their 'immature oscillations' would 'do more harm than good.' Adverse reactions to Pakistan's bid for the leadership of the Muslim world are a case in point. King Farouk of Egypt ridiculed Pakistan's Islamic pretensions when he asserted: 'Don't you know that Islam was born on 14 August 1947.' [i.e., the British partition of India and Pakistan.]
While dropping the idea of grooming Pakistan as the leader of an Islamic bloc in deference to Egypt and Turkey, the Americans ignored warnings by the British against any security arrangement that kept India out of the equation. In 1954, the U.S. signed a deal by which, in return for military assistance, Pakistan would harness its potential to combat communism. And so for a paltry sum of $25 million for starters, Pakistan undertook to secure Western strategic interests in South and East Asia as well as the Middle East. 
As early as December 1951, the director of the State Department's South Asian affairs division had secretly confessed to the British ambassador in Washington that the Americans were 'only too aware' of the complications involved in granting military aid to Pakistan. What was largely forcing the 'tilt' was that 'the Indians ha[d]... been so overplaying their hand' that even if Americans wanted 'to back out,' it had become 'virtually impossible' for them to do so. 
Pressing Pakistan into their security web naturally meant beefing up its army and supporting military coups when this served U.S. interests. American backing for military dictatorships during the height of the Cold War needs no elaboration. The consequences for relations between state and society in many parts of the world have more often than not been disastrous. In Pakistan, the suppression of democratic rights and the ensuing imbalances between elected and non-elected institutions during the Cold War era have proven to be of an enduring nature. Extended periods of military rule have wreaked havoc on political processes and the delicate weave of Pakistani society. 
Against the backdrop of a parallel arms and drugs economy - the result of General Zia-ul-Haq's American backed-support for the Afghan resistance movement in the 1980s - disaffected youth armed with Kalash-nikovs and other sophisticated weapons have been waging total war against rival linguistic communities and sects in addition to fighting running battles with the security forces. The Cold War may be over in the rest of the world, but in Pakistan it has taken a deadly toll. Rampant corruption, administrative paralysis and seething hatred among linguistic communities and religious sects have devastated the political, economic and the moral ecology of Pakistan. If the horse was getting wilder in 1958, a combination of domestic, regional and international factors in the final decades of the twentieth century left it gasping to avoid asphyxiation. 
As if these pressures were not enough, India provoked an economically enfeebled Pakistani state into conducting nuclear tests in a dangerous tit-for-tat with its most formidable rival. A watershed event, it has in combination with the shifting imperatives of the post-Cold War international system made the need for a drastic rethinking of internal and external security arrangements in the subcontinent especially urgent. Bold imagination and innovative approaches are needed if South Asia is to keep pace with the transformations at the international level. These transformations are pointing imperiously to the need for a concerted attempt at recasting the entire spectrum of relations not only domestically between state and civil society in individual countries but also regionally between states. Adjusting to the global changes that are underway, much less accommodating them, requires rare and determined acts of political will. 
And yet South Asian leaders seem intent on either keeping their heads buried in the sand or chasing mirages in the hope of short-term political gains. The value of nuclear weapons as a deterrence worked in post-war Europe and also in the stand-off between the U.S. and the then Soviet Union precisely because the magnitude of the horror forced restraint. Doubts about the exercise of such restraint by India and Pakistan was one important factor in President Clinton's visit to South Asia, a region he has dubbed 'the most dangerous' place in the world. 
The emaciated horse now on its knees, ironically enough, has become a source of acute worry for the U.S., anxious to cultivate India for its markets and potential as an ally against a resurgent China. 
Far from being tamed, the horse America backed until the end of the Cold War and the dismemberment of the Soviet Union seems to have gone completely berserk. The threat of Islamic extremism, coupled with military rule and a crumbling economy, makes the once dependable Pakistan not only more dangerous but also dispensable. From Kashmir to Kandahar, India managed successfully to whip up international support against Pakistan's alleged support for cross-border terrorism.
Is Pakistan at the end of its relationship with the U.S.? If negativities defined India's officially 'neutral' stance at the height of the Cold War, dancing to New Delhi's beat is the surest way of achieving American economic and strategic goals in India. 
But what of the region as a whole? In a mirror image of their position when Pakistan clambered on board the Western security bandwagon, the Americans are continuing to look at this most troubled region of the world with one eye. It is difficult to fault the centre of the capitalist system for wanting to nurture India as a lucrative economic market. It is even possible to understand why America would want to use India as a counterweight to China. The question that needs to be asked is whether things would have been very different if Pakistan had not gone under military rule in 1999. 
Since the early 1990s, Washington's attitude towards Pakistan has been conditioned by the confusing pulls and pressures of the post-Cold War climate, the issue of nuclear non-proliferation and strategic retirements in the Persian Gulf. The decision to suspend military and economic aid to Pakistan in October 1990 was an important turning point in U.S.-Pakistan relations. It led to a sharp deterioration of relations with the army high command. This was something of a departure from the trend in U.S. relations with the upper echelons of the Pakistani military and bureaucracy set in motion as early as 1951. 

Source: Dawn, May 2, 2000. Online at:

For more information about the author, and selected writings, see her web site: