Are Pakistan and the United States allies?

To follow is an excerpt from the CQ Researcher report "U.S. - Pakistan Relations" by Marcia Clemmitt on August, 5 2011.


After the Abbottabad raid, some Pakistanis complained that the United States routinely violates Pakistan's sovereignty, while some in Congress argued the incident proves Pakistan can't be trusted. However, many South Asia analysts argue that, despite conflicts, the countries do often support each other's interests.

“It is undeniable that our relationship with Pakistan has helped us pursue our security goals,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass. [Footnote 7]

“Pakistan has been a critical partner in capturing Al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan,” wrote Georgetown's Fair. Without Pakistan's prior “cooperation, the United States would not have even been in a position to kill bin Laden.” [Footnote 8]

Since the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Pakistan has “given us bases and over-flight rights, and we, in turn gave them aid and debt relief,” notes Dennis Kux, a senior policy scholar at the nonpartisan Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a retired State Department South Asia expert.

Furthermore, despite the Pakistani military's continued conviction that India, to Pakistan's east, is its primary enemy, the army has “moved a number of divisions to the western front,” bordering Afghanistan, at the behest of the United States, says William Milam, a senior policy scholar at the Wilson center and a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan.

“The help of the Pakistani intelligence services to Britain,” which has a large Pakistani population, “has been absolutely vital to identifying the links” of potential Pakistani militants now living in the United Kingdom to militant “groups in Pakistan, and to preventing more attacks on Britain, the USA and Europe,” wrote Anatol Lieven, a professor of war studies at King's College, in London, and a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington. [Footnote 9]

The United States has greatly increased aid to Pakistan in the past decade, from $36.76 million in 2001 to $4.46 billion 2010, a 2,273 percent increase, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. [Footnote 10]

Nevertheless, the alliance has long been troubled.

For example, the United States has provided and withdrawn economic aid to Pakistan repeatedly over the decades, depending on Pakistan's cooperation with U.S. strategic aims and the level of interest in South Asian affairs shown by various congressional leaders and presidents. In fiscal 2000, Pakistan didn't even rank in the top 15 nations in the amount of U.S. economic aid received (No. 15 Nigeria received $68 million.) But in fiscal 2010, Pakistan leapfrogged to third as the United States sought its cooperation with drone strikes and other targeting of Islamic militants in the region. [Footnote 11]

The ups and downs of U.S. aid have exacerbated Pakistan's difficulties in developing economically and greatly contributed to Pakistanis’ distrust of the United States, many scholars say.

In 1965, the United States walked away from the alliance altogether, says Kux. Pakistan was one of the first countries to recognize the communist government of the People's Republic of China, on its northeast border, and President Lyndon Johnson “was mad over that” as well as generally “sick of South Asia,” where Pakistan and India had squabbled for years, Kux says. Johnson cut off both military and civilian aid, although “he regretted it later, I was told,” Kux says. “To me, that was the turning point for Pakistan. The relationship was all downhill from there.”

“Until recently our South Asia policy has been made because of our anti-Soviet policy,” says Brookings’ Cohen. As a result, the U.S. policy “has been, ‘Let's let them solve their own problems, unless there's a crisis’” or specific U.S interests are at stake, says Cohen.

Because the United States has viewed the alliance as a way to achieve defense goals, it has allied itself primarily with Pakistan's military and “reinforced a message that we're only interested in working with dictators,” not in supporting Pakistan's development into a democracy, says Marvin Weinbaum, a scholar in residence at the Middle East Institute, a nonpartisan research center in Washington. Both countries “gloss over the fact that their interests are often inconsistent.”

In recent years, the United States has stoked Pakistani resentment by building America's relationship with rival India with acts that, many Pakistanis charge, symbolize neglect of the longstanding U.S.-Pakistan alliance.

In 2000, on a South Asia visit, President Bill Clinton “spent five glorious days in India and five cold hours in Pakistan,” observes Kux.

Throughout the Cold War, India was a Soviet ally and Pakistan a friend of the United States, but when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, “the United States said, ‘Oh, look, India's the bigger country! Let's get involved with them,’” says Barry Blechman, cofounder of the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington that researches security issues. In 2008, for example, President George W. Bush “made that terrible nuclear deal” — allowing India to engage in nuclear-technology trade although it hadn't signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty — “which was a slap in the face to everyone we had hectored over the years” about nuclear nonproliferation, including Pakistan, he says. [Footnote 12]

“We care about a geographical location, not about a country,” says Paula Newberg, director of Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. Talk in the United States of helping Pakistan “reform” is “worse than useless,” since it's accompanied by “actions that do the opposite,” such as channeling aid “to people who shouldn't be in power in the first place.”

Partly because the countries exaggerate the extent to which their interests align, “there's this long story line of desertion” on both sides, says Adil Najam, vice chancellor at Pakistan's Lahore University of Management Sciences. This is exacerbated in Pakistan by “tribal notions of what it means to be a friend — that a friend stands by you even when you're wrong.”

Anti-Americanism is increasing throughout Pakistan, says Aqil Shah, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University. “Many people feel the United States has let them down, talking about how they support democracy but not protecting them against dictators,” and periodically “washing their hands of us and walking away.” Now, with the United States winding down the Afghan war, Shah says, “it looks to people as if the United States is planning another exit” from its alliance with Pakistan, as it did when the Soviet Union withdrew in defeat from Afghanistan around 1990. Just as occurred then, Shah says, Pakistanis fear that Washington will leave them with another bad situation on their doorstep, this time in the form of an Afghanistan permanently aligned with Pakistan's nemesis, India.

Complicating matters is the fact that Pakistan's military and intelligence agency continue to tell the public that India is the country's chief enemy and that they will defend Pakistan's borders against all foreign encroachments, including U.S. strikes on terrorist targets, says Milam. In fact, they “have played a double game with the public,” acting “in complicity with the United States in the drone program since 2004, but not telling that truth to Pakistanis, who remain largely unaware that the government has been in favor” of many of the drone attacks, he says.

The alliance is like a marriage disintegrating, says Najam. “When things start falling apart, you start promising more than you can deliver” as a misguided way to patch things up, he observes. That's what Pakistan has done by telling the United States that “we will be with you completely in the fight against terror.” Public opinion inside Pakistan makes that politically impossible, but when Pakistan doesn't fully deliver, the United States sees betrayal.

Both countries “need to be smarter about what they really want” and more honest about what they can give, says Najam. “I wish Pakistan told the United States ‘No’ more often,” because it would be better “to promise less but deliver better.”

The Issues:

  • Are Pakistan and the United States allies?
  • Is Pakistan on the verge of collapse?
  • Should the United States cut off aid to Pakistan?
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[7] Quoted in Aqil Shah, “Time to Get Serious With Pakistan,” Foreign Affairs, May 6, 2011,

[8] C. Christine Fair, “The Road from Abbottabad Leads to Lame Analysis,” Huffington Post, June 21, 2011,

[9] Anatol Lieven, Pakistan: A Hard Country (2011), Kindle Edition, Location 275.

[10] Susan B. Epstein and K. Alan Kronstadt, “Pakistan: U.S. Foreign Assistance,” Congressional Research Services, June 7, 2011, p. 5,

[11] Curt Tarnoff and Marian Leonardo Lawson, “Foreign Aid: An Introduction to U.S. Programs and Policy,” Congressional Research Service, Feb. 10, 2011,, p. 14.

[12] For background, see Jayshree Bajoria, “The U.S.-India Nuclear Deal,” Council on Foreign Relations website, Nov. 5, 2010,