May 062008

Shuja Nawaz

In the 1950s, the US and Pakistan became close in the battle against the communist threat, or so Pakistan portrayed it to the Americans. Pakistani politicians and military leaders rather adroitly painted themselves as partners in the defence of the Middle East and against the communist threat worldwide, in sharp contrast to India’s neutral and at times pro-Soviet stance.

As Pakistan’s domestic political situation deteriorated, then army chief Gen Ayub Khan began formulating a plan to reorient the state. He had in mind a leadership role for the military. The US went along, as Pakistan played the communist card to acquire arms and equipment and to expand the army. Under the cloak of this argument, Pakistan’s army grew with US help to become a dominant player and coercive power on the national scene.

The US fully understood that Pakistan needed arms to defend itself against India and was not capable of fighting outside its borders against any future Soviet threat to the Middle East. Pakistan continued to believe that US aid could be used against India, and so long as it paid lip service to the fight against communism, it would meet all the criteria for continued aid. The Pakistanis were unaware that President Dwight Eisenhower himself was raising doubts about the military relationship, favouring economic aid. Chairing a meeting of the National Security Council in January 1957, President Eisenhower said that “this was perhaps the worst kind of a plan and decision we could have made. It was a terrible error, but we now seem hopelessly involved in it.”

But the pendulum was already swinging away from blind friendship towards a more pragmatic relationship on the part of the United States. This was captured succinctly in the new US ambassador James Langley’s letter to William Rountree, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern, South Asian, and African Affairs, near the end of 1957: “I fear that it would not be to difficult to make a rather convincing case that the present military programme is based on a hoax, the hoax being that it is related to the Soviet threat.”

The US saw then, as it does now, that the army was “well disciplined” and had a “high degree of morale and loyalty to their leaders and constitute the most stable element in Pakistan today.” Thus when President Iskander Mirza conveyed to the US ambassador in Pakistan that he was getting ready to impose martial law in October 1958, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles responded by advising Langley to convey to Mirza that the US favoured democratic government. But he added that “there may be exceptions which can be justified for limited periods. That decision must be left entirely for Pakistan’s leaders and people to decide….only as a last resort.” In effect, the green light was given for martial law.

The US needed Pakistan on its side, regardless of what was good for Pakistan’s internal political development. As a result, the US condoned or abetted Pakistan’s slide into martial law and repeated cycles of military rule. It propped up Gen Ayub Khan and then deserted him in the1960s after his war with India. President Richard Nixon, in effect, supported his illegal successor Gen A M Yahya Khan’s repression against East Pakistan, paying him back for Yahya’s help with opening up the doors to China for Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Nixon. But Yahya ended up losing a war to India and losing half his country, as East Pakistan became Bangladesh. Needing an ally against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in 1979, the US learned to live with and love the dictator General Zia-ul-Haq for a decade, but once the Soviets were defeated and General Boris Gromov’s tanks rumbled across the Amu Darya in February 1989, the US packed its bags and left. Pakistan had to deal with the blowback of the ensuing Kalashnikov and drug culture.

That is the history of political breaking-ups that Musharraf and many of his countrymen and generals remembered vividly, as they put themselves and Pakistan first in their dealings with the United States.

Now that a new democratically elected government is back in power, the United States needs to review this history too, to see how this time it can come out unequivocally in favour of the people of Pakistan, to regain their trust and friendship. If not, then Iraq and Iran may seem, in retrospect, to be minor challenges compared to what might emerge in a fractured, nuclear, and Islamist Pakistan in the years ahead. In the final analysis the security of Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile and the security of the region rest on a return to normalcy to the political system, and economic and social development that would meet the aspirations of its 165 million inhabitants.


The writer is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within which will be released in Pakistan this month by Oxford University Press. He is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and can be reached at
The News, 6/5/2008

 Posted by at 7:05 am

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