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A Low in Cycle of U.S.-Pakistan Ties

Interviewee: Hassan Abbas, Fellow, Asia Society; Senior Advisor, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
May 23, 2011

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Osama bin Laden's death May 1 during a U.S. raid on his compound in Abottabad, Pakistan, not far from Pakistan's premier military academy, has pushed U.S.-Pakistan relations to a "new low," says Hassan Abbas, author of a new study, Pakistan: 2020. Abbas says this is typical of the recent rocky relationship the two countries, which need each other but also undercut each other at crucial times. Abbas says a key reason for Pakistan's continued support for Taliban elements is concern about India gaining power in Afghanistan, which Pakistan sees as part of its "backyard." Abbas says relations could improve if Pakistan, whose military has a "phobia" about India that is not shared by most Pakistanis, could work out with India a settlement of the Kashmir dispute, which troubled relations since the founding of both states.

In the aftermath of Osama bin Laden's death, how would you describe the overall relationship between the United States and Pakistan?

Relations are at a new low, but if you look at it in the overall context of the past U.S.-Pakistan relationship I don't see this episode as much different from what has happened earlier in the ties between the two countries. For instance, during the Afghan War, Pakistan and the United States had a close relationship in supporting the Afghan mujahadeen against the Soviets. But immediately after the Russians left, the United States had serious concerns about Pakistan's nuclear program. It came as a real shock to the United States that Osama bin Laden was found within a one-mile radius of Pakistan's premier military training academy, [though] the recent comments by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates suggest that he does not believe necessarily (CBS) that the top brass in Pakistan knew, even if someone knew. Ups and downs have been a feature of the Pakistan-U.S. relationship. That relationship has been something between the most allied of allies and what some Pakistani military call "the most bullied of allies."

In the 1960s, Pakistan was one of the United States' top allies, though the relationship has deteriorated. Pakistanis fault the United States for dropping out of the region after the Soviet troops left Afghanistan. Is it in the interests of the Pakistan government and military to make the United States what amounts to "a hostile ally"?

That would be very detrimental to Pakistan. U.S. support to Pakistan is crucial in so many different ways: help with getting rid of the debt burden, supporting the Pakistani military, and now for the past two or three years the economic- and disaster-relief aid packages to Pakistan, which is the most significant help that Pakistan is receiving. If you look at the balance sheet of Pakistan's economy, the amount of investment by the U.S. and U.S. allies--whether it be direct aid to Pakistan, loans to Pakistan, or the IMF's support--the United States plays a major role.

The European Union also follows the United States' lead when it comes to aid or support for Pakistan, and Pakistan has been getting some support from Saudi Arabia as well. But my understanding is that even if you add the total amount of aid or support that Pakistan gets from Saudi Arabia, China, and some of the other Gulf states, U.S. support is much larger in magnitude. The Pakistani military loves China, but they love the U.S. military equipment more. Pakistan's army has some Japanese SUVs and once they bought some Ukrainian tanks, but otherwise the United States is the prime military supplier.

It would be really detrimental to Pakistan if this relationship becomes hostile. But there's another factor, which is how public opinion looks at the relationship--especially in the Arab and Islamic world, where everything is seen from the one lens of U.S. support for Israel. And after the Afghan War and the Iraq War, the U.S. image in the Muslim world has taken a hit. In addition, many people argue that we, the people in Pakistan, have not been the recipients of the U.S. aid. It is the Pakistani military and political elites who have benefited the most from this aid.

Certainly the United States needs Pakistan to resolve the Afghan War. Why does Pakistan still support the branches of the Taliban that reside in Pakistan? Why does Mullah Mohammad Omar, the head of the Afghan Taliban, still live comfortably in Pakistan?

Pakistan continues to believe Afghanistan is in its back yard. India has been supportive of some of the non-Pashtun groups in Afghanistan, and Pakistan's military and security establishment decided that if India gains influence in Afghanistan, then Pakistan will be sandwiched in between Afghanistan and India. [Also] the Pakistan military wondered about who will protect their interests in Afghanistan once U.S. forces leave. If India becomes dominant, they will feel very insecure. That's why they thought they cannot do away with all the militant groups. They need them to pursue Pakistani interests in Afghanistan.

My understanding is that if there was a survey in Pakistan about Kashmir, you might only get 30 percent, or at the most, 40 percent of the people who would still say, "Yes, Kashmir is still a big issue." To the majority of people, it is not.

When I asked a question to an important military leader why they were, or [are] believed to be, supporting a Haqqani group [the Taliban group led by Jalaluddin Haqqani], they argued that "We don't want to support the Taliban, and we are not looking forward to a Taliban government in Afghanistan at all, because that would have a huge negative impact on Pakistan." They also argued, and rightly so, that Tehrik-e-Taliban, the Pakistani branch of Taliban, have attacked all across Pakistan. Their argument is that they have been on the receiving end of [this violence] because of U.S. and NATO action in Afghanistan. However, they say to the United States that "we are supporting you," because it is through that support that they get military hardware and military support, so that if someday they are attacked by India they believe that they can defend themselves. The United States may call this "duplicity" or "hypocrisy," but the Pakistanis regard it as a logical policy since it serves their security.

If India and Pakistan could reconcile over Kashmir and other differences, it would make a profound difference in the region. To Americans, it seems Pakistanis exaggerate the threat from India, because to most Americans, India seems peaceful. Is there any hope on the India-Pakistan front? You spend a great deal of attention on this issue in your Asia Society study.

There is hope, and I agree with the widely held belief in many places in the United States that the Pakistani fear of India is exaggerated. My understanding is that if there was a survey in Pakistan about Kashmir, you might only get 30 percent, or at the most, 40 percent of the people who would still say, "Yes, Kashmir is still a big issue." To the majority of people it is not.

There was a peace process and they were pretty close to agreeing on Kashmir. Unfortunately, in 2008 India walked out because of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Of course, the prospect of a war between India and Pakistan is pretty unlikely. But in the military establishment, including intelligence agencies, the level of insecurity and phobia is very entrenched. I would like to compare it with another situation, which maybe is not considered politically correct in the United States, but it's increasingly talked about. It's the kind of insecurity that Israel feels from the region, because recently, even with this major reform movement in the Arab world, there is the concern that they will all gang up on Israel, which I seriously doubt. But the challenges to Israel are much more seriously acknowledged in the United States. There is a parallel because Pakistan believes also that all those surrounding, except China, even Iran or Afghanistan, will join hands with India and they will attack us. For the military establishment to survive, the Indian threat has to be kept alive.

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