U.S.-Pakistani relationship plagued by mutual distrust

Cameron Munter, former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan and to Serbia. (Photo: Catherine Schuknecht/ UCLA.)

U.S.-Pakistani relationship plagued by mutual distrust

U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter says the planned withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan in 2014 offers the United States an opportunity to redefine its policy toward Pakistan.

The United States has over-emphasized counterterrorism as its main goal in Pakistan, while failing to highlight other assistance initiatives, such as the relief response to the 2010 floods in the country.

by Catherine Schuknecht

International Institute, April 10, 2014 — In a dynamic talk followed by a lively question-and-answer session, former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter spoke on the history of relations between the United States and Pakistan at UCLA. The event, held April 5 in the auditorium of Broad Art Center, was organized by the Center for India and South Asia and cosponsored by the Burkle Center for International Relations.

Conflicting narratives

Pakistanis and Americans understand the history of U.S.-Pakistani cooperation in distinctly different ways, remarked Munter. This discrepancy, he argued, is central to the mistrust that has characterized the relationship since the 1950s.

Pakistan perceives the Unites States as a nation that abandons Pakistan as soon as its own interests have been served, he explained. This narrative is deeply rooted in the history of U.S.-Pakistani relations.

During the Cold War, the United States enlisted Pakistan in its ant-Soviet campaign. Pakistan accordingly became a member of both the Central Treaty Organization and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. The Cold War alliance with Pakistan was largely built on significant promised financial and military aid from the United States.

However, the alliance ended when the United States failed to aid Pakistan during its war with India in 1965. Pakistan’s sense of betrayal by one of its closest allies was further reinforced during the 1990s, when the United States sanctioned Pakistan in response to proof that it possessed a nuclear weapon.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States counterterrorism campaign saw a realignment of common interests between the two countries. Pakistan agreed to aid the United States in capturing Al Qaeda members in return for resumed financial and military assistance.

Yet the “war on terror” reinforced Pakistanis’ widely held belief that the United States only uses Pakistan to serve its own interests. “It’s assumed by Pakistan that this is in American DNA,” said Munter, noting that Pakistanis across ethnic, generational, and political lines believe “Americans will desert you when you need them most.”

On the American side, the United States perceives Pakistan as a nation that has repeatedly reneged on its promises. The American narrative of Pakistani dishonesty has been reinforced by Pakistan’s repeated use of U.S.-financed weaponry against India and its continuation of the nuclear program initiated by Pakistani President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto during the 1970s.

“Americans still don’t trust Pakistan,” said Munter, despite the fact that “many of the people who went to Guantanamo were the result of American-Pakistani cooperation after 9/11.”

Sharp deterioration of relations in 2011

Several events took place in 2011 that contributed to a deterioration of U.S.-Pakistani relations that has not yet been remedied, said the speaker.

The first incident was the arrest of CIA contractor Raymond Davis for killing two armed men who accosted him in Pakistan in January 2011. Although the Pakistani government refused to release Davis, the United States arranged his acquittal by appealing to the parallel validity of Sharia law and civil and criminal law in Pakistan. This allowed the United States to pay the victims’ families diyya, or blood money, in return for his release.

The day following the release of Davis, the United States authorized a drone strike that killed 50 people in Pakistan suspected of planning terrorist activities. This attack on what many Pakistanis claimed was simply a jirga, a gathering of tribal leaders, intensified widespread anti-American sentiment.

The CIA operation on Pakistani soil that ended in the death of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011, further increased tensions between the two nations. Many people in the United States believed that Pakistan was either complicit in bin Laden’s refuge in Pakistan or else simply incompetent, pointed out Munter. The Pakistani government responded to these accusations by criticizing the United States for violating its sovereign territorial integrity.

Munter asserted that he had seen no evidence, public or classified, that suggested a link between the Al Qaeda house where bin Laden was hiding and high levels of the Pakistani government, including the Inter-Services Intelligence agency — Pakistan’s primary intelligence service. However, he continued, the response of both sides to the operation was counterproductive to the relationship.

Next, Pakistan perceived the obliteration of 24 Pakistani border guards by a NATO airstrike in November 2011 as a deliberate provocation. Tensions were further exacerbated because the United States failed to apologize for the incident until seven months after the event.

These events have convinced Pakistanis that the United States is not sincere in its efforts to establish a balanced relationship with Pakistan, but rather, is focused on counterterrorism.

A possible new approach

When Munter ended his term as Ambassador to Pakistan in 2012, the United States had begun making efforts to repair the damage done by the events of 2011. Almost two years later, U.S.-Pakistani relations remain uncertain. Munter suggested a new approach that downplays counterterrorism, places Pakistan in a regional context and emphasizes shared goals.

The United States has made two fundamental mistakes in trying to build a balanced relationship with Pakistan, he observed. First and foremost, it has failed to deliver on ambitious promises intended to demonstrate the long-term U.S. commitment to Pakistan.

Second, the United States over-emphasized counterterrorism as its main goal in Pakistan, while failing to highlight other assistance initiatives, such as the relief response to the 2010 floods in the country.

Munter noted that the United States must be “realistic and modest in what we expect,” stressing the importance of avoiding overambitious promises.

Most important, it needs to adopt a regional approach that does not define Pakistan in relation to the terrorist threat in Afghanistan and takes into account its relations with neighboring actors, such as China and India.

“We have ignored the India-Pakistan relationship at our own peril,” commented Munter, claiming the relationship is the “key to peace in the region.” He urged the United States to support open communications between the two countries by encouraging both Track II dialogue — unpublicized talks between influential non-officials — and nuclear transparency.

After 60 years of failed attempts, Munter said he was convinced that the two countries would not be able to improve their relationship by means of government-to-government interactions. “We need to work on the areas where we can win,” he said, referring to cultural, philanthropic, business and academic arenas where common ground can be established.

The withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan in 2014 will offer the United States a long-awaited chance to redefine its relationship with Pakistan. “The future of diplomacy is more than just government,” insisted Munter, calling on people at centers that promote international connectedness — such as those at UCLA — to show Pakistan a “different face” of the United States by engaging with Pakistanis in areas where the two countries have a social and cultural affinity.


Published: Thursday, April 10, 2014

Subscribe to our Email list


© 2018 The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved. Terms of Use / Privacy Policy