The superpower and us


The recent information available from the United States Department of State and the US media suggests that Pakistan and the United States continue to diverge on security related issues against the backdrop of the American decision to gradually withdraw from Afghanistan. The US Administration is said to have evolved a multi-point criterion to judge Pakistan’s performance for security cooperation and counter-terrorism to decide about the supply of military assistance. The US wants Pakistan to earn military assistance by complying with US security agenda in the region.

Whereas the US Administration seeks greater and ‘no question asked’ cooperation for countering terrorism, Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment refuses to go all the way with the US roadmap to control terrorism.

The Pakistani side seeks autonomy for deciding what to do when and how in view of resource constraints and, above all, due to a strong perception that the Taliban and other extremist groups will outlive US military presence. Pakistan, the Pakistani security authorities think, will have to deal with them for many years after the US/NATO troops leave the region. Therefore, they do not want to pick fights with each and every group.

Looking at the demography of militancy in the tribal areas and mainland Pakistan and their inter-connections, it would be hazardous to take on all these groups at the same time. The threat of retaliation by these groups in the shape of suicide attacks and bombings in mainland Pakistan saps the desire of Pakistani authorities to challenge them. Pakistan’s security authorities are not yet convinced that they need to go after each and every group simultaneously, especially when the US is publicly asking for action against these groups. Further, Pakistan faces another type of mini-insurgency in Karachi and parts of Balochistan that has more serious implications for Pakistan’s economy.

A lot ambiguity permeates Pakistani state system and society over the threats by militant Islamic and other violent groups. It is not merely Islamic groups that express support or sympathy for Islamic militant groups, others are confused as to their role in destabilising Pakistan; many attribute violence to unknown foreign agents rather than these groups. This argument is not based on logic or hard data but it is part of the Islamic-jihadist narrative that seems to have seeped deep in the mindset of a very large number of people.

The popularity of Islamic-jihadist mindset has enabled the militant groups to develop societal linkages, evoking sympathy or support for them that go into the official civilian and military circles. Further, Islamic-denominational considerations also create sympathy for these groups. The growing anti-Americanism also enables them to mobilise societal support by playing on the theme of Islam versus the rest of the world, especially the US

The US authorities refuse to acknowledge the complex dynamics of interaction between militant Islamic groups, including the Taliban, and Pakistani society and the official circles. They view these linkages as a consequence of Pakistani state policy that permits the intelligence agencies, especially the ISI, to maintain discreet linkage with the militant groups viewed as friendly. The Pakistani security authorities do not clarify their position on this issue, generating the strong impression that they are not convinced that they should sever links with all militant groups.

These ambiguities about the relationship between Pakistan’s intelligence establishment and militant groups has led US military authorities to increase their intelligence activity in Pakistan in order to keep tabs on different militant groups and how do they operate in Pakistan. Several hundred CIA and other intelligence gathering personnel were inducted into Pakistan in different capacities during 2009-2010 who worked independent of Pakistani intelligence agencies.

The strategy of autonomous intelligence gathering by the US in Pakistan differed from the approach it adopted in the 1980s. While building up Afghan-Islamic resistance in Pakistan in the 1980s, the CIA operated in collaboration with the ISI. The CIA had very little direct interaction with militant Islamic groups.

The US effort to build an independent intelligence network in Pakistan irked Pakistani ISI and army authorities that felt that the US officials were attempting to undercut Pakistan’s security and intelligence authorities. This irritant has caused more bitterness between the two countries than any other factor. This issue attracted greater Pakistani attention after the US secret operation in Abbottabad to get hold of Osama bin Laden. This caused a virtual war between the ISI and the CIA that manifested in Pakistan’s refusal to retain American trainers, travel restrictions on American diplomats and officials in Pakistan and a strict scrutiny of visa requests by US officials. The ISI wants to restrict autonomous CIA activity within Pakistan; preferring joint operations or seeking full knowledge of CIA activity in Pakistan. The issue of drone attack has also become more contentious since March 2011.

This relationship has also suffered because of incessant public denunciation of Pakistan, especially the ISI, in the US. If US Department of State or the Pentagon can campaign through news leaks, Pakistan’s army and the ISI have stronger connections with the Pakistani media which they use to project their perspectives on different issues. There are many takers of Islamic-jihadi perspectives on regional affairs in Pakistani media. They become bolder in criticising the US with hints from Pakistan’s security establishment.

The US decision to suspend military assistance and continue with civilian assistance will not defuse criticism at the societal level in Pakistan. Pakistan’s security establishment is so well entrenched that any attempt to reach civilians while by-passing the military is not going to work. It is an erroneous assumption that the two relationships, i.e. military and civilian, can be managed as autonomous tracks or somehow Americans will be able to push back Pakistan’s security establishment by playing tough with them. It would be difficult for Americans to function effectively in Pakistan without the blessings of the military.

The US needs to recognise the limits of influence in a bilateral relationship. A superpower is not always able to control the behaviour of the smaller partner. Similarly, Pakistan should not expect that they can get unconditional economic and military assistance. The US will seek greater compliance from Pakistan. They will not be fully satisfied with each other’s policy output. The US and Pakistan should work toward expanding the areas of cooperation though dialogue while recognising that differences are integral to a multifaceted relationship that has many paradoxes. Unanimity of views on all issues is not a pre-requisite for cordial relationship.

The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.


  1. I agree with most of what you say; but like most Pakistani columnists, you miss the point that the primary US concern is not with Afghanistan, but with terrorism against the US. Pakistan's current policies concede to each militant group the power to bring down all-out war with America upon Pakistan's cities, military, and infrastructure — the certain consequence of the next successful terror attack in North America. The stakes are much higher than your article would indicate.

  2. It is in the greater interest of both countries to cooperate than confront on foreign or defense matters. There is nothing wrong in taking careful and well calculated steps in foreign policy matters. Both sides also need to understand the feeling on the other side and should try to incorporate these in their policy agenda.

  3. Pakistan need to review and recast its foreign policy rather than continuing the musharaf's era policies..the US must not treat Pakistan like a Policeman,because Pakistan is the only Country which provide face saving exit to the US.Because of hostile behavior of the US,Pakistan keeps herself away from all negotiation processes between the US and Taliban factions.Along with Pakistan, Iran can play its role in negotiations.About 9% of Afghan population belongs to shiite religious faction.The growing RAW and MOSAD agencies influence in Afghanistan's political matters would undermine Pakistan's relations with its neighbor Afghanistan.

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