The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is rife with policy disconnects, divergent interests, and deceptive tactics, but is also a story of cooperation.
Few U.S. bilateral partnerships have proven as frustrating for Washington as the one with Pakistan. It is a story of policy disconnects, divergent interests, different expectations, and deceptive tactics that have often involved outright lying. But it is also a story of cooperation and achievements in areas ranging from counterterrorism to pandemic assistance.
Islamabad has accused Washington of abandoning Pakistan. Washington has accused Islamabad of coddling terrorists, and being mendacious and deceptive.
Much about Pakistan concerns U.S. officials, from its ties to terrorist groups that target the United States to a powerful military that constrains the growth of civilian-led democracy. But Washington has long swallowed its misgivings and pursued partnership with Islamabad, calculating that its interests dictate doing so. The two formed a Cold War alliance that entailed joint backing for anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, they established a counterterrorism alliance to target al-Qaeda. In 2004, Washington designated Pakistan as a non-NATO ally—a prestigious status accorded to some of America’s top partners, including Australia, Israel, and Japan.
But none of those top partners have been assailed as “the ally from hell,” had their main spy agency branded as a “veritable arm” of a notorious terrorist group, or been denounced as a country that “has given us nothing but lies and deceit”—all observations made by U.S. commentators and senior officials about Pakistan in recent years.
This essay, drawing on the reflections of former U.S. officials involved in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, highlights the unique challenges and choices that Washington has faced while navigating ties with Islamabad over the last decade. It also shows how the Pakistani policies that bother Washington the most—especially sponsorship of terrorists that target Americans—have sometimes helped U.S. officials advance their interests, thereby validating the hold-your-nose-and-hope-for-the-best approach that successive administrations have embraced in opting to engage with Pakistan, warts and all.
An Ugly Pattern of Allegations
One of the uglier aspects of U.S.-Pakistan relations is the pattern of allegations each side levels against the other. Islamabad has accused Washington of abandoning Pakistan and not being sensitive to Pakistan’s interests. Washington has accused Islamabad of coddling terrorists, and being mendacious and deceptive. A particularly serious Pakistani allegation came just last month when Prime Minister Imran Khan accused the Biden administration of working with Pakistan’s opposition to plot Khan’s ouster through a no confidence vote. Washington opted to stay quiet when these allegations were made. The decision appears to have paid off.
Khan based his case on a cable, prepared by Asad Khan, Pakistan’s outgoing ambassador to Washington (no relation to the premier). It captured a private conversation in March between Asad Khan and a senior U.S. official, later revealed by Prime Minister Khan to be Donald Lu, the top South Asia official at the State Department. Lu expressed unhappiness about Prime Minister Khan and said U.S.-Pakistan relations would be better off if the opposition succeeded in ousting the premier through the no confidence motion, which the opposition was then putting together.
A case of a U.S. official venting privately about U.S.-Pakistan relations was depicted by Khan as evidence that Washington was trying to oust him. In a country where allegations of U.S.-led regime change have been made previously, and where the United States has a history of meddling, it’s a narrative that resonates with many Pakistanis.
U.S. officials stayed quiet, other than denying the allegations when pressed by the media. Khan was defeated in the vote, and the new prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, took office on April 11. Sharif is a less sharp critic of U.S. policy than is Khan. Admittedly, this very fact has hardened the views of many Pakistanis that Washington helped orchestrate Khan’s ouster. The administration initially, and wisely, refrained from congratulating Sharif publicly. But several days after Sharif took office, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken released a statement congratulating Sharif and declaring America’s interest in cooperation with Pakistan. This statement undoubtedly fueled more Pakistani speculation of an American role in Khan’s ouster. But Sharif, in contrast to Khan during his last months in power, seeks warm relations with Washington. This should bring a much-needed boost to bilateral relations.
Sharia to the Rescue, and Other Unusual Tales
As that recent example suggests, the history of U.S.-Pakistan relations is a roller coaster, with some highs and many lows. The biggest plunge came in 2011, when consecutive crises severely tested the limits of partnership. The year brought into sharp relief the difficult decisions that Washington must make to safeguard its interests in such a challenging partnership.
They resorted to sharia law, using the principle of blood money, which enabled financial compensation to be provided to the families of the two dead men.
In January 2011, with large numbers of U.S. security and intelligence officers in Pakistan to pursue counterterrorism missions, a CIA contractor named Raymond Davis shot and killed two Pakistani men on a busy street in the city of Lahore after the men threatened him with a weapon. Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies found themselves in a bind. They were keen to continue security cooperation with Washington, but public sentiment was inflamed and was demanding vengeance. “Public opinion was united against Davis,” recalls Cameron Munter, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan at the time. “What we accurately described as an act of self-defense was seen by many Pakistanis as a lethal assault in broad daylight by an American.” Islamabad eventually moved to put Davis on trial.
Munter and his Pakistani interlocutors eventually found a solution that, by the standards of U.S. foreign policy, is highly unorthodox. They resorted to sharia law, using the principle of blood money, which enabled financial compensation to be provided to the families of the two dead men. This offered a way out of an impasse over the issue of diplomatic immunity: The Pakistanis claimed Davis didn’t have diplomatic immunity, but Munter insisted he did because he was a contractor with diplomatic status, and that he therefore couldn’t be tried in Pakistani courts. “The high road—insisting on principle and rejecting Pakistani arguments about his status—could have led to conviction and even execution, in turn risking a serious breach in relations at a time when our common interests in fighting terrorism were paramount,” Munter explains. “The practical solution…by using Sharia law, avoided this breach.”
The Bin Laden raid involved Washington refusing to tell its ally it would be sending military forces onto its soil, and ordering its top official in Islamabad to stay mum until the operation was complete. This highly unusual treatment of an ally would continue.
Then, in May, Washington resorted to an even more controversial tactic: It sent military forces into Pakistan without telling Islamabad in advance, in a mission to apprehend Osama Bin Laden. In effect, the U.S. staged a unilateral raid on the soil of its own ally. Washington didn’t trust the Pakistanis enough to give them the courtesy of a heads up. Islamabad was infuriated, and Munter “had the task of managing the fallout.” This put him in a tough spot when Pakistan’s foreign secretary, Salman Bashir, called him asking if he knew about a helicopter crash in Abbottabad, the city where the raid took place. Munter was under orders not to say anything about the operation until officials in Washington had briefed Pakistan’s army chief. But Munter didn’t want to lie to Bashir. Diplomats “have very little to offer other than trust and communication,” Munter says today. “We rely instead on relationships, and relationships need honesty.” All he could do was tell Bashir he would get back to him.
The Bin Laden raid involved Washington refusing to tell its ally it would be sending military forces onto its soil, and ordering its top official in Islamabad to stay mum until the operation was complete. This highly unusual treatment of an ally would continue in November, when the White House refused to offer a prompt apology to Pakistan after U.S. forces in Afghanistan accidentally killed 24 Pakistani border troops.
Pakistan’s ties to the Taliban also likely helped secure the release of the American Caitlin Coleman, her Canadian husband and their children, from Taliban captivity in 2017.
A former senior U.S. official recalls a conversation with someone at the White House at the time that helps explain why the Obama administration was initially unwilling to say it was sorry. The former official was asked if they had ever read “Romney’s book.” This was a reference to a book by U.S. Senator Mitt Romney, who would soon be the Republican candidate for the 2012 presidential election, called No Apology. “I realized at this point that the Democrats still feared being labeled as Jimmy-Carter-weaklings,” the former official says.
In this case, Washington refused to immediately apologize for the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers for fear of being perceived as weak. Such a fear typically arises when it comes to dealings with enemies, not allies. Eventually, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered a public apology—in July 2012, more than seven months after the tragedy.
The Utility of the Unsavory
From a normative perspective, the United States prefers democracy over dictatorship. But from an interests-based perspective, Washington often opts to work with authoritarian governments; many have been close U.S. allies. Washington backed many Pakistani military dictators, and in the post-2008 era, after Pakistan transitioned to civilian-led rule, it has sometimes privileged its relations with Pakistan’s military—which continues to be a powerful political force—over those with the civilian leadership. This is because Washington believes the Pakistani military has a major—if not final—say in policy toward the United States. But it’s also because the Pakistani military is at times simply easier to deal with than the civilians.
Indeed, former senior U.S. officials have recalled times when working with Pakistani military leaders was more efficient and less bureaucratic than dealing with their civilian counterparts. These include the example of having senior Pakistani military officers help arrange meetings for visiting U.S. officials with top Pakistani civilian leaders.
Then there is the issue of Pakistan’s historic relationship with violent actors like the Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Taiba, internationally designated terror groups that have killed Americans in the region. Islamabad has viewed them as useful assets that help Pakistan pursue its interests in Afghanistan and India. Pakistan’s harboring of terrorists has long been a major source of U.S.-Pakistan tensions. But Washington has also capitalized on Pakistan’s relationship with militants to help pursue its interests. In 2018, President Donald Trump was determined to launch negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan as he worked toward a troop withdrawal. He knew Pakistan was well placed to help bring the Taliban to the table because of its longstanding sponsorship of the group. He asked Islamabad to convince the Taliban to talk to the Americans, and the Pakistanis did just that.
Pakistan’s ties to the Taliban also likely helped secure the release of the American Caitlin Coleman, her Canadian husband and their children, from Taliban captivity in 2017. They were being held by the Haqqani Network, a brutal Taliban faction. When U.S. intelligence discovered that their captors had brought them across the border to Pakistan, security forces in Pakistan—either through negotiations or a military operation, or both—obtained their release. Pakistan may also have had a role in the release of another U.S. hostage, the soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who was taken by the Haqqani network in Afghanistan in 2010 before being brought to Pakistan. He was freed in a 2015 prison swap with Taliban detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
Keep Calm and Carry On
Today, with Sharif in office, the Biden administration has an interlocutor who will be easier to work with than his predecessor, Imran Khan. Additionally, Sharif took office just a few days after a Pakistani court sentenced Hafiz Saeed, the leader of the terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba, to 31 years in prison for terrorist financing—a conviction Washington had long wanted to see. The takeaway is that Pakistan can still be a helpful partner, underscoring why Washington has never opted for a divorce from Islamabad—despite their many incompatibilities.
Michael Kugelman is the Deputy Director of the Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center. He is a leading specialist on Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan and their relations with the United States. The editor or co-editor of 11 books, Kugelman has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, and other publications, covering topics ranging from U.S. policy in Afghanistan and terrorism to water, energy, and food security in the region.
Cover photo: Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, left, meets with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, on the sidelines of the 76th UN General Assembly in New York, September 23, 2021. AP ImageKena Betancur/Pool.