Pakistan-USA ties: From Liaqat Ali Khan to Asif Zardari

Life before Kerry-Lugar —Haider Nizamani

Popular sentiment has always been wary of American influence in Pakistan. Successive governments while framing their relations with the US have tried to placate public mood by invoking notions such as ‘augmenting national defence’ to accepting the ground realities of power politics

Why are TV pundits and commentators in the print media so worked up about President Asif Zardari allegedly throwing the country in America’s lap? President Zardari stands accused in this media trial of selling out to the United States and compromising national security by accepting the $1.5 billion a year US aid package popularly known as the Kerry-Lugar Bill. Before judging President Zardari, let us look at the last sixty years and see if he is any different from earlier rulers of Pakistan.

Zardari and his team have much in common with their predecessors when it comes to leaning on American crutches instead of hanging on to the notion of national sovereignty. In fact, this behaviour dates all way the back to Liaquat Ali Khan, the country’s first prime minister.

Ayesha Jalal, in her meticulously researched book The State of Martial Rule, writes that Pakistan requested a $2 billion loan from the US in October 1947, and Pakistani officials “admitted that the new state’s internal political situation depended upon its ties with Britain and the US.” It was the Americans who turned down Pakistan’s request.

“If your country will guarantee our territorial integrity, I will not keep my army at all.” These are not words of Asif Zardari but of Liaquat Ali Khan, speaking in response to an American journalist’s question in Washington DC in 1950. Pakistan was so far down on the priority list of the Americans that they didn’t seriously entertain our first prime minister’s offer to disband the military.

By the mid-1950s, the Pakistani ruling elite’s efforts to woo the Americans finally bore fruit when Pakistan became one of the founding members of US-sponsored regional military pacts like the Baghdad Pact and the Southeast Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO). Jalal is not off the mark in saying that by this time “the Americans had gained a toehold in the administrative operations of the Pakistani state.”

Pakistani sovereignty was a colander with such big holes that American U-2 spy planes flew from our country to carry out espionage missions in Soviet airspace in the 1950s. The US was allowed to open an espionage field office in Badaber, on the outskirts of Peshawar, in 1959. And this was happening under the watchful eye of Ayub Khan who, ironically, titled his book about Pakistan-US ties Friend not Masters. How Pakistani rulers were flaunting the sovereignty of the country became public knowledge when the Soviets downed a U-2 and captured its pilot, Gary Powers, alive.

From 1979 onward, General Zia-ul Haq scaled new heights in compromising the country’s sovereignty when he allowed Pakistan to be used as a base for proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

By the 1990s, the political class of Pakistan was operating on the principle that the road to Islamabad goes through Washington. Benazir Bhutto never made any bones about her enchantment with American power while in our out of power.

Nawaz Sharif, whose party has become flag-bearer of national honour these days, rushed to Washington in July 1999 to sign a document that was tantamount to Pakistani surrender in the Kargil war. The myth of sovereignty was patently broken when Pervez Musharraf and Nawaz Sharif signed a deal brokered by the Saudis and the Americans facilitating Sharif’s exit from the country with his extended family. Musharraf is on record quoting a threatening phone call from Anthony Zinni, an American official under the Bush administration assigned to handle Pakistan, as the reason for abandoning the Taliban and embracing American ‘war of terror’.

Thus far I have only listed some signposts of Pakistan’s bartered and battered sovereignty in the realm of high politics. But the ongoing chest-beating about compromised sovereignty hardly mentions how international lending agencies have been telling managers of the Pakistani state to run it. Custodians of sovereignty will be well-advised to click the Pakistan link on the World Bank’s website. From the port in Karachi to education in the Northern Areas and irrigation in the Punjab, the World Bank has a say in all of the above. The World Bank proudly claims that it is expertise, more than money, imparted to these countries that truly matters.

Bargaining was the name of the game, as is nowadays, between Pakistan and America. Pakistan seldom got the amounts and ammunitions it asked for. The Americans were periodically dissatisfied with what Pakistan delivered in return of the US military and civilian aid.

If the country’s first prime minister was ready to disband the national armed forces only if Washington had provided a security guarantee, then why this hue and cry over sovereignty this time?

There are number of reasons. First, popular sentiment has always been wary of American influence in Pakistan. Successive governments while framing their relations with the US have tried to placate the public mood by invoking notions such as ‘augmenting national defence’ to accepting the ground realities of power politics.

Second, the urban middle classes of Pakistan love to hate Asif Zardari. He being at the helm of the state affairs and kowtowing to the Americans only adds fuel to the anti-Zardari sentiment of the middle classes. Third, the Pakistan People’s Party has never been a huge favourite of the civil-military bureaucracy. It could never establish an amicable wavelength with what is popularly termed the ‘Establishment’ in Pakistan.

Lastly, the above reasons combined find their explosive expression in 24/7 news channels where commentators and anchors never seem to tire of talking in ahistoric terms about US-Pakistan relations. The reason PPP leaders appear defensive on television is not because their party is the first to let the Americans interfere in Pakistani affairs. They are feeble on screen because they don’t have the guts to admit that Pakistani sovereignty was not an America-proof jar they inherited. There are sixty-year-old holes in it and they are likely to remain irrespective of the wishful assertions of TV anchors.

The writer is a lecturer in political science at the University of British Columbia. He can be reached at