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PAKISTAN: U.S.-Pakistan Relations

Author: Sharon Otterman
September 19, 2003
This publication is now archived.

Is Pakistan an effective ally of the United States?

Yes and no, experts say. President Pervez Musharraf accommodated U.S. requests for assistance after 9/11, especially in the search for al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. "The United States and [President] Bush have confidence in Musharraf. He's seen as the best alternative in Pakistan," says Mahnaz Ispahani, senior fellow for South and West Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. At the same time, many experts say Musharraf is not doing enough to crack down on Islamic radicals in Pakistan who have strong ties to theTaliban and sympathies for al Qaeda.

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What has Pakistan done in the war on terror?

Pakistan joined the U.S. war on terror and broke relations with Afghanistan's Taliban government, to the chagrin of many Pakistanis. In June 2003, Bush announced that Pakistan had arrested more than 500 Taliban and Qaeda members. One of the most significant catches: the March 2003 arrest of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the former No. 3 leader of al Qaeda and the alleged mastermind of the September 11 attacks. Pakistan has also deployed 25,000 troops to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the mountainous region that borders Afghanistan, to track Qaeda fugitives.

Why do critics say it hasn't done enough?

Many critics doubt the loyalty of Pakistan's armed forces and the military's intelligence agency, Inter Services Intelligence; some members of both have openly sympathized with al Qaeda and its fight against the West. Pakistani military officers have recently been arrested for alleged ties to al Qaeda, including a solider who reportedly sheltered Mohammed. And politicians in Musharraf's government express open admiration for al Qaeda. In addition, the government hasn't been able to locate bin Laden or other Qaeda figures thought to be hiding out in border regions. That's partially because many locals revere bin Laden and his fellow extremists. "Nobody will turn them over," says Kathy Gannon, Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the Associated Press Pakistan and Afghanistan bureau chief since 1989.

What were U.S.-Pakistan relations like before 9/11?

Chilly. Experts point out that Pakistan used to be a world pariah: censured and sanctioned for its nuclear ambitions, which culminated in five successful nuclear tests announced on May 28, 1998. It also actively supported the Taliban and was one of very few countries to recognize Taliban rule in Afghanistan as legitimate.

What effect did 9/11 have?

Pakistan sided with the United States in the war on terror and, as a result, regained the strategic importance it had during the 1980s, when it was a base for U.S. aid to Islamic militias fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. On June 24, 2003, President Bush hosted Musharraf at Camp David and announced a $3 billion aid package for Pakistan, as well as $1 billion in loan forgiveness, in recognition of its assistance to the United States in fighting al Qaeda.

Is the aid package what Musharraf wanted?

Yes and no. The amount pledged almost equals the sum given to Pakistan under Ronald Reagan's administration, when fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan was a regional security concern. It will certainly help Pakistan pay down its crushing debt burden, which in 2001 was 115 percent of its gross domestic product. However, the aid package announced by Bush does not include 28 F-16 fighter jets that Pakistan ordered from the United States 13 years ago. The sale has been blocked since then by the U.S. Congress because of concerns over Pakistan's nuclear program and Musharraf's path to power.

Is Musharraf the elected leader of Pakistan?

No. He seized power in a 1999 military coup. Tensions between then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Musharraf were exacerbated after Sharif in July 1999 ordered Pakistani troops to retreat from their positions on the Indian side of the Line of Control, which divides the disputed territory of Kashmir. That decision was highly unpopular with the army. The crisis came to a head when Musharraf, then the head of the army and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, was flying home from Sri Lanka in October 1999 and Sharif's government denied his plane permission to land. With fuel running low, the plane was at risk of crashing. Musharraf supporters stormed the palace, took over the airports, state radio, and television, and allowed the plane to land. They also took Sharif into custody.

Where is Nawaz Sharif now?

Living in exile with his family in Saudi Arabia. Sharif accepted a 10-year exile in return for his release from prison after the coup. Another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, also lives in exile abroad. She was convicted in absentia of corruption, and faces arrest if she returns to Pakistan.

When did Musharraf become president?

Musharraf named himself president of Pakistan before meeting with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in July 2001. He resisted calls for elections at that point, but engineered a referendum in 2002 that confirmed him as president for five years. He also changed the constitution to grant him increased powers over parliament and the new government.

Is Musharraf a reliable partner for the United States?

Experts aren't entirely sure. "We're dependent on someone who has done a lot of distorted and anti-democratic things to get into power," says Ispahani. "I don't think we can rely on one man, especially a military man." Gannon says that Musharraf will not sacrifice either his domestic or regional agenda--particularly the twin issues of Kashmir and nuclear weapons--for the United States. At the same time, Musharraf has given the United States almost everything it's asked for since 9/11, including public support, the use of military bases, and a crackdown on local militants--at significant domestic political cost.

What are the political costs?

There is a "deep and wide anti-Americanism in Pakistan today," Ispahani says. The country, officially an Islamic republic, is more than 97 percent Islamic, and many Pakistanis are angry that Musharraf has joined forces with the United States to hunt down Muslims. Pakistani Muslims are, by and large, moderates, and the country has a history of secularism and freedom of religion, Ispahani says. However, radical fundamentalist groups are gaining in both strength and numbers.

What happened in Pakistan's October 2002 elections?

Religious parties made large gains, in part due to Musharraf's maneuvering, some analysts say. Instead of running against Bhutto and Sharif, whom he probably would have defeated, Musharraf banned them from participating. This left their supporters in the secular political parties--Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples' Party and Sharif's Muslim League--disorganized, and created an opportunity for Muttahida Majlis e Amal (MMA), or United Action Front, an alliance of religious parties. The MMA polled 11 percent of the vote, which gave it control of 20 percent of Pakistan's parliament. It now also governs the North-West Frontier Province and shares power in Baluchistan province.

What's the status of Pakistan's parliament?

Stymied. Last year, members of Parliament objected when Musharraf named himself president, because the Pakistan constitution forbids the head of the army from becoming president. Musharraf promptly sidelined them. Parliament still meets but exercises little power.

Do some of Pakistan's religious parties have links to terrorism?

Yes. One political party, Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), is part of the powerful Deobandi sect that controls 65 percent of nation'smadrasas, or religious schools. As many as 15 percent of the students at madrasas are thought to be foreigners. The party is also associated with Harakat-ul-Mujahadeen, the first Pakistani group to be put on the U.S. list of terror organizations. The JUI has a large component of ethnic Pashtuns, the tribe many Taliban belong to, and both groups have strong ties to the Taliban.

What is the biggest issue for Pakistan's religious parties?

Kashmir. The predominantly Muslim province has been a point of contention and the cause of three wars between India and Pakistan since Partition in 1947. Pakistan supports an army on the Line of Control and is accused by India of funding armed militants who cross it into Indian territory. "Kashmir allows a playing field for jihadis," Ispahani says. Many Islamists in Pakistan also oppose the government of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, which they think is biased against Pashtuns and which, Gannon says, is seen in the region as "hugely corrupt."

Why is Kashmir important?

"Kashmir is the focal point of extremism" in the region, says Gannon. "The radicals can claim,'Islam is under attack,' and rally everyone under the Kashmir banner." She says there must be progress on resolving the Kashmir problem in order for Pakistan's military and intelligence service to be "de-radicalized." The international community has to make a commitment to settling the Kashmir dispute, Gannon says, before Musharraf can face down Islamic parties at home and reduce their influence.

Does Musharraf face personal risk from radical groups in his own country?

Yes. He cannot travel safely in Pakistan, says Ispahani, and has faced several assassination attempts. But, she points out, "he's survived so far, and that's a great sign."

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