The evolution of U.S.-Pakistan policy

U.S. imperialism in the age of Obama
Protesters in Pakistan condemning the killing of Osama bin Laden

AS IS well known, in recent years the United States has greatly expanded the scope of its operations in and around Pakistan. Nobel Peace Prizes aside, Obama has launched more than four times the number of drone strikes ordered under Bush—and this, after only two-and-a-half years in office.1 The fact that the American antiwar movement has regained some momentum, then, is to be welcomed, as is the fact that it finds itself on surer footing than in previous years. The recent protests in April saw the beginnings of important efforts to connect the domestic antiwar movement to movements overseas, as well—links that will prove essential if we’re to succeed in our aims.

Nevertheless, for a few on the American left, Pakistan remains a source of some confusion. With an eye on the challenges ahead, it may be useful to review a few basic facts about the country’s history, the current standoff with the United States, and the state and future of the left.

Imperialism and its lackeys
As is widely known, more than half of Pakistan’s history has passed under military rule. Dictators wielded power between 1958 and 1971, between 1977 and 1988, and between 1999 and 2008. 

There are many reasons for this, of course, but the most straightforward explanation is perhaps also the most compelling. Pakistan, at independence and after, has been in the hands of a political class with an exceedingly shallow grip on the territories it has come to rule. The “movement” behind the country’s creation, the All-India Muslim League, had always had its most meaningful base of support in a region of the subcontinent that actually became part of India in 1947.2 Thus, upon independence, the areas the Muslim League was called on to govern were almost uniformly places in which the movement had no roots.3 Because the League’s political line hewed firmly to the reactionary mandates of its vanguard (landlords and lawyers, in the main), its connection to Pakistan’s masses lay principally in its alliances with their tribal and provincial overlords.

This, the thoroughgoing political weakness of the country’s elite, suffices as a proximate explanation for the frequency of authoritarian rule. More often than not, the Pakistani ruling class has found the imperative of holding on to the levers of power to be incompatible with democratizing access to the state apparatus.

The United States, unsurprisingly, has an unmistakable record of backing each of the three dictatorships to the hilt. In this sense, the history of the Pakistan-U.S. alliance demonstrates well what has only been confirmed by the current administration’s response to the popular struggles in North Africa and the Middle East: for all the hot air about “democracy” and “human rights,” the American establishment retains impeccable commitments to its own strategic interests.

In the 1950s, Muhammad Ayub Khan’s military dictatorship was a pillar of America’s anti-communist pacts, SEATO and CENTO. In the 1980s, when the Soviets were in Afghanistan, the United States happily poured billions of dollars into the coffers of General Zia ul Haq. This, it’s worth remembering, is the same Zia who was simultaneously introducing an unprecedented series of repressive laws to punish social and political dissent: ranging from public flogging, to the amputation of the hands of burglars and criminals, the stoning to death of adulterers, etc. The Blasphemy Laws recently in the news were given their weight by his administration.4 And in the last decade, the United States gladly propped up General Pervez Musharraf as reward for playing second fiddle as the United States conquered Afghanistan.

The current conjuncture
While today Washington finds itself allied with an elected government, many of the fundamentals of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship remain unchanged. Precisely because U.S. policymakers are animated entirely by their strategic interests in the region, dynamics that recall the earlier periods are very much still in evidence today.

For one, the arrangement with the current democratic dispensation works, for the United States, precisely because the civilian leaders are weak-kneed and eager satraps. For all of its bluster, the current Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) regime hastily fell in line after taking power.

The leaked WikiLeaks cables are chock-full of evidence of the PPP’s submissiveness. For instance, in a meeting with ex-Ambassador Anne Patterson in August 2008, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani is reported as having brushed off criticisms of the drone program, saying “I don’t care if they do it as long as they get the right people. We’ll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it.”5 In Bob Woodward’s recent book, Obama’s Wars, Pakistan’s president Asif Ali Zardari is said to have privately voiced an identical sentiment to ex-CIA chief Mike Hayden, around the same time: “Kill the seniors. Collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me.”6

In this sense, the corollary of the PPP’s subservience to Uncle Sam is a deep-seated contempt for the Pakistani people. It’s worth noting, after all, that even by the most conservative estimates, the drone program has killed several hundred civilians.7

Secondly, despite the formal ouster of the dictatorship, the army remains absolutely pivotal to the alliance. This comes out quite clearly in the leaked cables, as well. Much of the real action of negotiating Pakistan’s role in the Afghan war rests with the military brass, and not with the civilians. This is a property of the incomplete character of Pakistan’s democratization—despite the 2008 transition, the civilians cannot claim to have brought the generals under their sway.

Of course, much has been made of the rapid deterioration in the U.S. relationship with the Pakistani military, following first the Raymond Davis affair, and now the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Here, though, we need to be careful to set the fracas in its historical and strategic context.

It bears remembering, after all, that the current brouhaha comes on the heels of a couple of years of relatively warmer relations. In this period, the Pakistani military greatly expanded the scale, scope, and brutality of very heavy-handed counterinsurgency offensives in the Northwest. As a consequence, in 2009 more people were displaced by military conflict in Pakistan than in any other country in the world.8

This had improved the relationship between the army and the U.S. to no end. In fact, one of the major “revelations” of the WikiLeaks episode, viz-a-viz Pakistan, was the information that the army was allowing U.S. Special Operations Forces to embed with Pakistani troops. As the relevant cable makes clear, the U.S. had long waited for permission to do this, and it was only their growing understanding that made the arrangement possible.

One needs to tread carefully, then, when evaluating the endless speculation doing the rounds after the Abbotabad raid. Certainly, if it’s true that the Pakistani military was housing bin Laden, the most persuasive explanation is Tariq Ali’s: as long as the bogeyman remained at-large, a healthy flow of American aid was guaranteed.

At the same time, there is reason to question this. To my mind it’s not settled that the Pakistani military is committed to a long-term NATO presence. The bounty of U.S. aid competes with the goal of reestablishing Pakistan’s influence over Afghanistan (of the kind enjoyed in the mid- to late- 1990s), which remains a central strategic priority. And the protracted U.S. presence, together with the collaborationist role this forces on the Pakistani establishment, has engendered unprecedented levels of persistent violence within Pakistan’s borders. If handing over bin Laden would have expedited U.S. withdrawal plans, why wait?

Moreover, whatever Osama represented in his last years, he was hardly of strategic value to the military. Unlike other militants based in Pakistan (about which more below), neither he nor al-Qaeda have any meaningful role in organizing the insurgency in Afghanistan. This is why, despite all the circumstantial evidence to the contrary, the possibility that the military was oblivious to his presence in Abbotabad can’t be ruled out.

More important than speculation about the army’s role in offering bin Laden exile and/or assisting in his assassination, however, is clarity around the larger facts in Af-Pak. The current imbroglio is as good a time to take stock as any, since it only helps to clarify that there remain permanent tensions between U.S. and Pakistani planners regarding the endgame in Afghanistan.

The crux of the issues centers on what the Americans regard as the Pakistani army’s unwillingness to abandon its support of elements of the Afghan insurgency that have based themselves in North Waziristan. The key protagonist here is a group known as the Haqqani network, to which the military has well-established links, but the problem is more general.

Publicly, for the United States, Pakistan’s ambivalence towards these groups explains the difficulties the U.S. surge is having in Afghanistan. The White House December strategy review, for example, was dominated by discussion of these “safe havens.”

This assessment, of course, is inaccurate. The insurgency is hardly puppeteered from Pakistan; rather, it’s driven by the criminality and corruption of the United States and its quislings in Afghanistan. That is to say, even if these safe havens didn’t exist, the insurgency still would. For U.S. planners, harping on Pakistan’s “double-dealing” in North Waziristan serves a dual purpose: as a public test of Pakistan’s loyalty, as well as a ready excuse for the calamity that is their occupation.

For the Pakistanis, U.S. demands require an ever-more-delicate balancing game. On the one hand, there’s the obvious necessity of cooperating with Washington, given the more than $11.5 billion in military aid that has come the army’s way, since 9/11.9 On the other, there’s the aforementioned strategic imperative of guaranteeing a favorable settlement in Afghanistan. The ever-present worry that India will exert influence in a post-occupation regime means Pakistan’s ties to the Afghan insurgency aren’t likely to be rethought in the near future.

Thus far, granting permission to the U.S. drone program has been the government’s way of handling this conundrum. It’s very unlikely that something like a full offensive against these groups (which the United States has been demanding) is actually in the cards, both because of the army’s deep investment in these networks, but also because the blowback from any operation is guaranteed to be formidable.

However—and this is important—all this will depend centrally on the pace of American withdrawal. The longer the United States ends up staying, the more difficult it might prove for Pakistan to avoid some sort of reckoning with these groups. Of course, it’s worth stressing that if some kind of negotiated settlement is eventually brokered by the United States, it is precisely Pakistan’s “treacherous” links to the insurgency’s leadership that will prove essential to ensuring an orderly transition.

The very possibility of this settlement, it must be said, invites a larger clarification. This strategic quandary that the Americans find themselves in, viz-a-viz Pakistan, is almost always cited as evidence that Pakistani “duplicity” will be the undoing of America’s struggle in Afghanistan. At best, we’re told that the military can’t abandon its irrational obsession with India; at worst, the suggestion is that the Taliban have infiltrated the ISI.

This framing, however, is colossally misguided. The Pakistani state’s patronage of elements of the Afghan insurgency is neither pathological, nor evidence of an imminent fundamentalist takeover. On the contrary, as many a U.S. strategist no doubt understands, the military’s behavior is eminently rational in the present context; in many ways, it is competitive, bourgeois statecraft at its most honest.

For this reason, the left’s diagnosis has to be different. The irrationality plaguing Af-Pak is emphatically systemic. It is a property not of conniving Pakistani generals but rather of the larger “Great Game” raging in the region, which is an indictment of the U.S. occupation, specifically, but also, more generally, of a social system that can produce wars and state rivalries of this duration and intensity.

The left and the road ahead
And last, a few words on Pakistan’s progressives. In the aftermath of the assassinations of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti,10 both murdered for their opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, many seem convinced that the Pakistani masses have been lost, irreparably, to the religious right. This, it must be said unequivocally, is hogwash. While it would be foolish to underplay the scale of the challenge that confronts the left in the country, principled concerns have to be distinguished from the mindless babble of the Islamophobes, for whom Pakistan has never been much more than an army, a smattering of sensible politicians, and the 180 million-strong “barbarian horde” that they hold back.

The facts are quite different. For one, the right-wing religious parties have actually never done well at the polls—peaking at roughly 11 percent of the vote in 2002, but down to 3 percent in 2008. They have no chance of making significant inroads on a national scale, where the PPP and the PML-N have no rivals. In a handful of parts of the country the left can match the Islamists for street power. In Balochistan, Sindh, and even Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the nationalists—overwhelmingly secular, in inspiration—are considerably stronger.

The world was abuzz, for example, when the Islamists put 50,000 on the streets of Karachi after the governor’s murder; but no one will have heard that secular Sindhi nationalists managed to mobilize more than three times that number a year earlier. Or that 100,000 textile workers, organized by a left-wing trade union movement in Faisalabad, went on a successful seventeen-day strike this past summer.

None of this is to suggest that the left is strong, of course. There’s nothing to be gained by disguising the fact that progressives have their work cut out for them. But what we should remember, here, is that the left’s relative weakness hardly makes Pakistan exceptional—on the contrary, it’s a plight with which much of the world is quite familiar. And it is this—the fact of a shared predicament—that has to be our starting-point, as we move forward.

Today, the urgency of a left revival is indisputable. Pakistan’s vast majority remains centrally preoccupied by hunger, poverty, and war, not by sectarian prejudices or anti-blasphemy crusades. Scattered protests against the everyday miseries of life in our country—layoffs, land grabbing, employer impunity, government heavy-handedness, etc.—are routine. As I write, workers from the recently privatized utility company in Karachi sit on a prolonged hunger strike outside the Karachi Press Club.

In step with the global march to austerity, the Pakistani people find themselves subject to the criminal mandates of an ongoing IMF program. The Fund is withholding the last chunk of an $11.3 billion agreement until the government meets certain spending benchmarks.

In order to do this, the government has already taken some unforgivable measures. Despite the monstrous damage wrought by last summer’s floods, the development budget has been slashed.11 What is no less shocking is that all of the flood-related reconstruction and rehabilitation projects have been canceled for lack of funds.12 Unsurprisingly, in January the deputy head of UNICEF reported rates of malnutrition in Sindh that rival “the worst of the famine in Ethiopia, Darfur, and Chad.”13 (It’s worth adding that—despite the requisite fanfare in the first few weeks after the floods—the United States has contributed only $400 million, which is about a fifth of what it spends in one week on its Afghan adventure.)14

Amid this “fiscal emergency,” the military budget has been increased by 25 percent. This wasn’t announced publicly, nor does it seem to have been subject to parliamentary scrutiny. In fact, Pakistanis probably wouldn’t have found out had the hike not been revealed in a memo submitted to the IMF last September.15

In short, it’s difficult to imagine that there will ever be a better time to stress the fact that people across the world find themselves locked, against the machinations of their ruling classes, in a common struggle to forge something resembling a habitable world. If the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia have taught us anything, it is that people once readily dismissed as apolitical, fundamentalists, sectarian, etc. (dismissed, mind you, not just by the mainstream, but also by some on the left), harbor both enviable courage and serious political convictions.

Undoubtedly, the road to rebuilding our movements, at home and abroad, will be long and uncertain. Nonetheless, as the United States scrambles to maintain regional hegemony, we can’t afford a lack of clarity on these few, critical points of departure.


  1. See the drone database maintained by the New America Foundation, available at
  2. See Hamza Alavi, “Pakistan and Islam: Ethnicity and Ideology,” in State and Ideology in the Middle East in Pakistan, Fred Halliday and Hamza Alavi, eds. (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1988).
  3. One illustration of this is the fact that Urdu, which was the ideological bedrock of the Muslim League’s project, was spoken by only 7.3 percent of Pakistan’s population in 1951. Tariq Ali, Pakistan: Military Rule or People’s Power (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970), 136.
  4. See Urooj Zia, “No Defense for Archaic Judaeo-Christian Law,” Pakistan Today, January 10, 2011. Available at
  5. Tim Lister, “Wikileaks: Pakistan quietly approved drone attacks, U.S. special units” CNN, December 1, 2010. Available at
  6. Bob Woordward, Obama’s Wars (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 26.
  7. See Adaner Usmani, “Drones and left-wing politics,” Viewpointonline, November 29, 2010. Available at
  8. “Pakistan suffered most displacement in 2009,” Express Tribune, May 18, 2010. Available at
  9. “Pakistan got $18bn aid from US since 2001,” Times of India, February 23, 2010. Available at
  10. Salman Taseer was governor of Punjab until his assassination by a member of his own security team, in January 2011. Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, was Federal Minister of Minorities when murdered in March 2011 by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan. Both Bhatti and Taseer had been outspoken in their criticism of the Blasphemy Laws, and in their defense of those persecuted under the legislation.
  11. Shahnawaz Akhter, “Development budget cut by Rs 100 bn,” The News, January 23, 2011. Available at
  12. Khaleeq Kiani, “Projects in flood-hit areas shelved,” DAWN, January 25, 2011. Available at
  13. Declan Walsh, “Pakistan flood crisis as bad as African famines, UN says,” Guardian, January 27, 2011. Available at
  14. John W. Miller, “Clinton suggests conditions on Pakistan flood relief,” Wall Street Journal, October 14, 2010. Available at
  15. “Pakistan increases its defense budget,” BBC News, September 23, 2010. Available at



Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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