Pakistan-US Relations Veering Towards Breakdown – Analysis


By Dr Subhash Kapila

United States-Pakistan denouement in their strategic and political relationship has been a noticeable feature more specifically with General Kayani assuming the appointment of Pakistan Army Chief of Army Staff (COAS) in 2007. This significant development in terms of major issues involved, US Administration’s recent observations on Pakistan and perspectives including strategic implications for India were examined in great detail by this Author at the beginning of March 2011 in his Paper entitled “ UNITED STATES-PAKISTAN DENOUEMENT: STRATEGIC IMPLICATIONS FOR INDIA” (SAAG Paper No. 4360 dated 03 March 2011.

This Paper provides the contextual background for developments that have since taken place in March 2011 which convey a premonition that Pakistan-United States relations may indeed be veering towards a breakdown.

The month of March 2011 may indeed mark the defining moment in Pakistan-United States relations when the Pakistan Army as the chief mainstay of the Pakistan Army-United States strategic partnership may be forced to divorce its promiscuous military partnership with the United States because of inescapable domestic political pressures and compulsions. These domestic compulsions arise not from any regain of civilian political control over the Pakistan Army, but by the serious erosion of Pakistan Army’s domestic image in the eyes of all Pakistanis.

The Pakistan Army is increasingly being perceived as a supine collaborator of the United States without the gumption to resist United States pressures on Pakistan. Public outbursts this month of the Pakistan Army Chief on US drone attacks in Pakistan’s frontier areas are viewed by retired Generals of the Pakistan Army as shedding ‘crocodile tears’. Some have questioned that all that the Pakistan Army Chief has to do is to stop US drones operating from Pakistan Air Force bases.

In March 2011, Pakistan seems engulfed in intense public debate both in the vernacular and English media, and more noticeably in TV talk-shows where the entire value of Pakistan’s relations with the United States is hotly debated. Anti-Americanism which was earlier the preserve of the religious theocracy and the vernacular media now extends wider to what may be called as Pakistan’s more educated classes.

To take stock of the ongoing developments in Pakistan-United States relations which portend the veering of this relationship to a possible breakdown, this Paper intends to focus on the following issues;

  • Pakistan-United States Relations: The Ides of March 2011
  • Pakistan Army: Is it Bent on a Showdown with the United States?
  • United States Signals its Intentions for ‘Go-Alone’ Policy in North Waziristan
  • United States Drone Attacks: The Myth Propagated by the Pakistan Army Disputed Within Pakistan
  • Pakistan-United States Relations Prevention of Breakdown: Who Will Blink First?

Pakistan-United States Relations: The Ides of March 2011

The Ides of March 2011 seemed to have cast an evil spell on Pakistan-United States relations as the following developments would indicate:

  • Release in March 2011 of Raymond Davis ,the American diplomat detained in Pakistani jail accused of allegedly shooting two Pakistani civilians tailing him
  • United States resumption of massive drone attacks in March 2011 in North Waziristan with deadly impact
  • General Kayani’s public outburst against the United States following the above
  • Pakistan Air Force put on ‘Top Alert’ and leave of all Air Force personnel cancelled.
  • Pakistan Foreign Office issues a demarche to the United States
  • Pakistan in protest calls off its participation in the Trilateral Meeting on Afghanistan that was scheduled for March 26 in Brussels
  • General Petraeus in Congressional testimony calls for military action by Pakistan Army in North Wazisitan
  • Pakistani citizen Nadeem Akhtar indicted in United States by a Maryland Court for smuggling since 2005 prohibited nuclear materials for Pakistan’s Chashma Nuclear Plant and also for Pakistan Space& Upper Atmosphere Research Commission.

Widely believed in Pakistan is the fact that the US diplomat Raymond Davis would not have been released and spirited out of Pakistan without the acquiescence of the Pakistan Army Chief and the ISI. Ironically, Raymond Davis’s release was contrived by the ISI through a Sharia Court under Sharia laws

United States had put drone strikes on hold during the pendency of court hearings of Davis. Their resumption soon after the release of Davis has incensed Pakistanis

While the Pakistani Prime Minister and President condemned the North Waziristan drone strikes on Datta Khel more in proforma tones the Pak Army Chief went public in his outbursts and labeling it as human rights violations besides other strong remarks against the United States

In an unprecedented measure following the North Waziristan drone attacks by the United States, Pakistan’s military establishment put the Pakistan Air Force on Top Alert’ and all leave of personnel was stopped. Instructions were also issued to the Pakistan Air Force to intensify air patrolling over North Waziristan.

Pakistan Foreign Office summoned the US Ambassador in Islamabad and issued a demarche protesting against the North Waziristan drone attack and calling for a US public apology. The Foreign Secretary made it a point to stress to the US Ambassador that “ it was evident that the fundamentals of our relations need to be revisited”

In yet another protest on the drone strikes, Pakistan has refused to participate in a Trilateral Meeting on Afghanistan scheduled for March 26 in Brussels. This is the second time the Trilateral Meeting stands cancelled. Earlier the United States cancelled the meet on the Raymond Davis detention.

General Petraeus in his Congressional testimony outlined the successes achieved by US Forces in Southern Afghanistan and reiterated that the gains need to be consolidated by the imperatives of Pakistan Army military operations in North Waziristan. It may be recalled that General Kayani has been soft-pedaling the issue and is reluctant to order Pak Army into North Waziristan.

The timing of indictment of a Pakistani citizen for smuggling prohibited nuclear materials for Pakistan’s Chashma Nuclear Plant could not have come at a more inopportune time. Pakistan is being poorly perceived in the United States

Pakistan Army: Is it Bent on a Showdown with the United States?

Widely acknowledged is the fact that the foreign policy of Pakistan is firmly controlled by the Pakistan Army Chief and particularly in relation to Afghanistan, India and the United States. In March 2011 the picture obtaining from the Pakistan Army’s perspectives is dismal in relation to these three countries.

United States-Pakistan relations have been in state of denouement for more than three years. Both the United States and Pakistan have been laboring to sustain their marriage of convenience rather unsuccessfully as a deep ‘trust-deficit’ exists between the two nations.

In March 2011, the following adverse developments stare squarely in the face of the Pakistan Army and its Chief:

  • United States strategic perspectives, military moves and postures in Afghanistan do not suggest that Pakistan Army’s ambitions to regain strategic depth in Afghanistan will be catered for by the United States
  • United States has pressurized the Pakistan Army Chief and the ISI heavily to facilitate the release and exit from Pakistan of Raymond Davis. In the process the domestic image of the Pakistan Army and its Chief stands severely dented in vast and different segments of Pakistan society.
  • Pakistan Army perceives that the United States is now bent on leveraging its economic and military aid to Pakistan in a more forceful manner and with greater accountability. to ensure its compliance with attainment of military objectives in Afghanistan
  • Pakistan Army Chief’s demands on United States to pressurize India on Kashmir have not materialized and Pakistan Army perceives that presumably the United States is complicit with India on this account

The timing of the public outbursts of the Pakistan Army Chief following the North Waziristan drone attack is curious in the sense that drone attacks by the United States in Pakistan’s frontier regions has been going on for the last six years and General Kayani in the last three years of his tenure has not been so outraged. Further curious is the fact that at a time when Pakistan-United States relations are already frayed and tipping, did General Kayani had to push them towards breaking point?

Obviously, the moot question that surfaces is whether the Pakistan Army is now bent on a showdown with the United States and which could lead to a rupture of relations between the two nations. The next question is whether at this particular stage both the United States and Pakistan can afford a breakdown in their relationship. The prompt answer would be in the negative but then Pakistan Army is not reputed for taking rational decisions.

The United States smells of success in its Afghanistan military operations and calculates that the Pakistan Army will not gamble away United States military and economic aid.

However in March 2011 the situation is different from earlier years in that the dynamics of Pakistan’s domestic politics stands changed. Pakistanis perceive that the subjection of the Pakistani heartland to terrorist bombings and suicide bombings in recent years has been generated by Pakistan Army’s collusive participation in military operations in frontier regions on behalf of the United States and US drone strikes in those regions.

Leading the charge of anti-Americanism in Pakistan are the ‘mullahs’ and Islamist parties which have been the natural allies of the Pakistan Army. They claim that Pakistan today is an ‘orphaned nation’ as the Pakistan Army has lost the strength to stand-up to America to protect the lives and property of its citizens.

The debate against the United States has assumed extreme contours arguing that Pakistan Armed Forces do not depend on US military equipment other than F-16 fighter jets. The rest of the military hardware is predominantly Chinese and in case of Air Force and Navy, it is French.

More sinister are the arguments that why the Pakistan Armed Forces should be shy in resisting US pressures when they have a sizeable nuclear weapons arsenal at its command supported by long distance nuclear tipped missiles to deter the United States.

United States Signals its Intentions for a ‘Go-Alone’ Policy in North Waziristan

Launching of military operations in North Waziristan against Al Qaeda and Taliban hideouts including those of the Haqqanis has been a sore point between the United States and the Pakistan Army Chief. General Kayani has obstinately refused to proceed militarily in North Waziristan as he feels that these are Pakistan Army’s proxy assets to reclaim Afghanistan as Pakistan’s strategic depth.

For the United States & NATO Forces in combat in Southern Afghanistan it is a pressing military imperative that the Pakistan Army launches military operations in North Waziristan to liquidate Al Qaeda, Taliban and Haqqani outfits launching military operations against them.

North Waziristan today exemplifies the spark that may bring about a rupture in Pakistan-United States relationship.

Sensing that General Kayani would not budge from his stand of not launching the Pakistan Army in North Waziristan, it seems that the United States has resorted to adopt a ‘Go-Alone’ strategy to neutralize North Waziristan. The March 2011 drone attacks on Datta Khel in this region need to be seen in this light.

It can also be presumed that on this specific occasion the United States acted on its own actionable intelligence of Taliban/Al Qaeda presence without reference to ISI. This may be the pattern of operations by the United States henceforth.

The Datta Khel drone attacks by the US has spawned all the protests, demarches, outbursts by Pak Army Chief and Pakistan pulling out of Trilateral talks on Afghanistan Pakistan maintains that civilians were the victims whereas earlier reports on that day indicated that Taliban and other militants were killed in the strike

Some in Pakistan have questioned as to why similar outbursts by Pakistan Army Chief did not occur during earlier US drone strikes? They have questioned is it because in the Datta Khel drone strikes the ‘Good Taliban” of the Pakistan Army sustained sizeable casualties?

With the onset of spring and the resumption of large scale Taliban attacks in Southern Afghanistan coupled with the planned July withdrawals of limited US Forces from Afghanistan it would occur to US military minds that a limited military intervention confined to North Waziristan may become a tactical military imperative for the United States. This may be preceded by imposing a ‘No Fly Zone’ on North Wazirsistan

United States Drone Attacks: The Myth Created by the Pakistan Army Disputed Within Pakistan

The Pakistan Army has spent a lot of time and energy to propagate that US drone attacks were counter-productive and while militants escaped there was a lot of collateral civilian damage. The Pakistan Army has never publicly conceded that US drone attacks were being successful in achieving appreciable results against the Taliban and other militants.

This myth stands debunked within Pakistan both by a senior Pakistan Army General and an academic hailing from the frontier tribal areas.

Major General Ghayur, GOC 7 Infantry Division in a press briefing at Miranshah on March 9th 2011 declared that “ myths and rumors about US Predator drone strikes and casualty figures are many, but it is a reality that many of those being killed in these strikes are hardcore elements, a sizeable number of them foreigners.”

General Ghayur further cited statistics of previous years and suffices it to quote that last years figures indicated that in 103 drone strikes 423 militants were killed. Later the Pakistan Army spokesman Major General AttharAbbas heatedly commented that the views of General Ghayur were his personal ones and that Pakistan maintained its position that there was a lot of collateral civilian damage

Farhat Taj in a Column in Pakistan’s The Daily Times commented that: “Most local tribesmen are comfortable with the drone attacks and term them as “airborne justice delivery system” because the drone strikes are precisely killing the terrorists who have imposed a reign of terror on the people in collusion with the Pakistani State. Based upon my first hand interaction with the people in drone-hit areas, all the reports about civilian deaths and the attacks being unpopular in the area are far from the truth”

She further explained that the civilians told her that the terrorists fear drone strikes and they spend a lot of time planning how to survive against the drone attacks. The terrorists live in fear and that impedes them greatly in launching terrorist strikes.

Obviously the Pakistan Army versions are in a mismatch with ground realities and aimed as anti-US propaganda exercises.

Pakistan-United States Relations Prevention of Breakdown: Who Will Blink First?

Prevention of breakdown in Pakistan-United States relations would not be in the interests of both nations. Comparatively, it is Pakistan that has raised the stakes with its public posturing against the United States. The United States has gone about its military operations in Afghanistan and drone strikes in North Waziristan in the normal business like manner.

Secure in the belief that it enjoys significant leverages over Pakistan and which Pakistan can ill-afford to ignore, the United States is unlikely to be distracted from its Af-Pak operations by Pakistan’s adverse posturing. The United States is used to the petulant behavior of the Pakistan Army and its Chiefs.

Pakistan and more specifically the Pakistan Army Chief would be hard pressed to retreat from the hard line positions that stand adopted by him. This would be his greatest dilemma presently. If he retraces his steps, his public image within Pakistan already dented, stands to downslide further. This could also affect his standing within the Pakistan Army as he has made it a signature campaign of his to stand up to United States pressures.

If General Kayani persists in his strong posturing against the United States, he risks not only the sidelining of his role in Af-Pak strategy but also the possibility of a contrived replacement as Chief.

The United States seems to be now frustrated and unhappy with Pakistan Army’s command structure and 12 missiles fired in one day at Datta Khel is a strong US message to the Pakistan Army according to one Pakistani analyst

Normal analysis would suggest that the Pakistan Army Chief and Pakistan would have to blink however grudgingly in a face-off with the United States but as mentioned earlier, Pakistan Army Chiefs are not noted for rational decision-making.

The United States therefore has to be alert and prepared for nasty surprises from the Pakistan Army.

In one Pakistani blog a comment exists that the easiest course for General Kayani to wriggle out of the present standoff with the United States is to launch a war against India in Kashmir. Reasons for this course need not be explained.

This Author has been emphasizing in his recent Papers on Pakistan, Indian military imperatives to remain in a high state of war preparedness to meet such a foreseeable eventuality.

Concluding Observations

Policy analysts and editorials in Pakistan have started joining the dots of the trust-deficit that dominates the Pakistan-United Sates relationship and have come to conclusions that both countries are veering towards a breakdown in their relationship.

Also being commented in Pakistan is that it is difficult to distinguish who is challenging whom to break out of this relationship and who is leading the brinkmanship to get the other to show his hand. This is questioned in so many words in a very perceptive analysis on the current situation

Pakistan has been led by the United States to believe in grandiose illusions about its strength and capabilities and boxing much above its weight both in regional context and in the context of US-Pakistan relations. Presumably the time has come for the United States to take a call on the brinkmanship of the Pakistan Army in the conduct of Pakistan’s foreign policy.

(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email: [email protected])


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

2 thoughts on “Pakistan-US Relations Veering Towards Breakdown – Analysis

  • April 20, 2011 at 6:59 am

    It is better for us to settle our internal disputes, like Baloch problem need to be solved, Refugies from Afghanistan should retun.True democracy and rule of law is must.Beside this full autonomy like in USA.

  • May 2, 2011 at 1:56 pm

    Pakistan and the USA have always had a tenous relationship. The Nucs are the problem. A stable control mechanism is the basic bottom line. IF the Pakistan military decides to go rouge, then the Nuc cat is in play.
    Our relationship with India, is also in the same category. Nucs in play with the SE Asian folks are terrifying to consider.
    Semper FI


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