The long-running sham of US-Pakistani relations enjoyed yet another farcical episode last week.
In the wake of a report by an international rights group showing the failures and dangers of Washington’s drone program, Islamabad takes its alleged ally to task, warning of dire consequences if the program — which kills civilians with depressing regularity and is wildly unpopular with the Pakistan public — is not stopped.
Then The Washington Post fortuitously receives top secret documents showing that Pakistan has at least tacitly agreed to the drone program.
Against this backdrop, Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, meets with President Barack Obama and voices his protest amidst warm words and assurances of Pakistan’s continued importance as a US ally.
Smiles all around. The curtain drops.
Mistrust and misunderstanding between Washington and Islamabad is nothing new; ever since Pakistan’s bloody creation in 1947, the two countries have viewed each other with barely concealed disdain.
Some 60 years after the fact, many Pakistanis still believe that the United States was behind the 1951 assassination of Pakistan’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, for the sin of daring to defy Washington over the issue of Iranian oil.
The US wanted Pakistan’s backing in persuading Tehran not to nationalize its oil fields, which were then under the control of the British. When Ali Khan refused to help, Pakistanis say, Washington began plotting his demise.
Fast forward to the 1980s, when Washington sorely needed Pakistan’s support for its proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The US funneled money and weapons to the mujahideen in Afghanistan through Islamabad, helping a ragtag alliance of rebels fight and ultimately defeat a superpower.
Of course, Pakistan was pursuing its own goal the whole time: To foster a friendly state on its border that would not try and form any strategic partnerships with Islamabad’s main enemy and historical obsession, India.
Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, the ISI, is widely “credited” with helping prop up the Taliban as a way to ensure a friendly relationship with Kabul.
Once the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, Washington largely washed its hands of Pakistan, giving rise to sentiment that the US was only a friend when it was in need.
After 9/11, the US once again needed Pakistan’s help. Since 2001, Islamabad has been a major ally in America's "war on terror" — about 80 percent of material for the war in Afghanistan travels through Pakistan.
The partnership was not all smooth sailing; Pakistan continued its close relations with the militant groups it had helped to create, and Washington was clearly unhappy.
Relations took a serious dive after May 1, 2011, when Navy Seals raided a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed Al Qaeda's leader Osama bin Laden.
Pakistan expressed outrage over this violation of its sovereignty, while Washington was left with the nagging suspicion that Pakistan had knowingly harbored the world’s No. 1 fugitive for nearly a decade.
Then came the drones.
Between 2009 and 2011, Washington radically stepped up its drone attacks against militants in Pakistan. The number of civilians killed is unclear, but by all accounts substantial.
The attacks consistently provoke anger and outrage in Pakistan, where a Pew Research poll conducted in 2012 showed that 74 percent of respondents considered the US an enemy.
However, Washington, at various times over the years, sought not only Pakistan’s acquiescence, but its active participation in the drone program.
“A lot of the targets are nominated by the Pakistanis — it’s part of the bargain of getting Pakistani cooperation,” former CIA officer Bruce Riedel told The New Yorker back in 2009.
Documents from WikiLeaks also revealed the depth of Pakistan’s hypocrisy on drone strikes. A cable sent to Washington by US Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson in 2008 quotes Pakistan’s then-Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani as saying about drone strikes, “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.”
Last week’s mini-fracas over drones is nothing new in the two countries' long and turbulent relationship.
Pakistan is a major recipient of US aid: According to the Congressional Research Service, since 1984, the US government has pledged more than $30 billion in direct aid to the country. About half of that’s been for military assistance, and more than two-thirds of it appropriated after 2001.
Payments were suspended in the wake of the Abbottabad raid, but more than $1.5 billion is now set to be released following Obama’s meeting with Sharif last week.
The US wants that money to be spent shoring up the government, combating Islamic militancy, and creating stability in the region, but aid to Pakistan has traditionally yielded disappointing results, due to corruption and incompetence on the part of Pakistan’s weak government.
To make matters worse, there is ample evidence that Pakistan continues to support militants who are targeting and killing US troops.
When he was stepping down as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2011, an openly frustrated Admiral Mike Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Pakistan was supporting the Haqqani network. The group of militants was believed to be behind many high-profile attacks in Afghanistan, including the bombing of a NATO outpost south of Kabul in September 2011 that killed five and wounded 77, as well as an assault on the US Embassy in Kabul that same month.
“The Haqqani network acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency,” Mullen told the committee.
Why does such a dysfunctional relationship continue?
It's simple: The two countries need each other, at least for now.
Pakistan is a nuclear-armed country of 180 million people with a weak civilian government that has been marked by religious and ethnic instability.
The prospect of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands keeps many US policymakers up at night. While Islamabad assures Washington that its nuclear arsenal is safe, some experts are not so sure.
Pakistan clearly needs US aid, but it is deeply suspicious of the focus on its nuclear arsenal.
“Many Pakistanis believe that America’s true goal is not to keep their weapons safe but to diminish or destroy the Pakistani nuclear complex,” wrote Seymour Hersh in a 2009 New Yorker piece.
Afghanistan remains a factor in the relationship: With the withdrawal of US forces scheduled to be completed by the end of 2014, Pakistan will play an important role in determining Afghanistan’s future.
For now, the uneasy balance will continue, as will the illusion of friendship. But, as more than one pundit has remarked, “with friends like these, who needs enemies?”