Is the U.S.-Pakistan Alliance Against Terrorism Coming to an End?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 19

Recent events in Pakistan have raised critical issues concerning the continuation of Pakistan’s support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism in Afghanistan. Commencing with the enormous backlash in Pakistan in the aftermath of the raid by U.S. Special Forces on Angoori Ada in the tribal area of South Waziristan on September 3; the disclosure by the New York Times that President Bush issued secret orders allowing U.S. Special Forces to undertake operations inside Pakistan without prior notice (New York Times, September 11); and the aggressive statements of several Pakistani leaders, the entire country has been gripped by a wave of anti-American sentiment which the country’s top civilian and military leadership has also been quick to echo.

Although disagreements between Pakistan and the United States have persisted ever since the latter invaded Afghanistan and President Pervez Musharraf engineered the abrupt somersault in Pakistan’s policy towards the Taliban to bring it in line with U.S. dictates, these have seldom assumed serious proportions or created apprehensions as they do now. In fact, recent events indicate that a major recalculation might be in the offing in Islamabad vis-a-vis Pakistan’s support for the U.S.-led War on Terrorism. Even the terrorists seem to have recognized the weakness of the regime in Islamabad and have conveyed a powerful message to it with the recent attack on the Marriott Hotel located in the heart of Islamabad (Dawn [Karachi], September 20; see Terrorism Focus, October 1).

A Diverging Alliance

The recent furor over aggressive U.S. unilateralism surfaced immediately after U.S. Special Forces undertook their first-ever operation on Pakistani soil inside South Waziristan. The September 3 “snatch-and-grab” raid by an elite US Navy SEAL team resulted in the death of nine to twenty individuals (Dawn, September 13).

While the Pakistan Government lodged an immediate and forceful protest with the United States over this violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty, Pakistan’s chief-of-staff, General Ashfaq Kayani, alluded to the implications of the cross-border raid by saying “such reckless actions only help the militants and further fuel the militancy in the area” (AP, September 11).

What was disturbing about the Special Forces incursion was the failure to provide any advance information by the U.S. military or government to their Pakistani counterparts. This was despite the fact that there were numerous military-to-military meetings in the preceding weeks, including visits by Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen to Pakistan and the secret August 27 “military summit” between Admiral Mullen and General Kayani aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. In addition to these meetings, the regular established channels of communication between NATO / ISAF authorities and the Pakistan military were available to inform each other of any new developments or operations, but these were not brought into use.

General Kayani’s discomfiture over having been kept in the dark even by those U.S. military commanders with whom he has been in regular contact was evident from his statements after the incident. While Admiral Mike Mullen was telling Congress that Pakistan had to be convinced to help “eliminate [the enemy’s] safe havens,” General Kayani was strongly criticizing the U.S. for leading NATO forces on a series of cross-border raids on militants within Pakistani territory, insisting there was no deal allowing foreign troops to conduct operations there. More explicitly, he reiterated that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country would be defended at all costs and that no external force is allowed to conduct operations inside Pakistan (Daily Times [Islamabad], September 13; The News [Islamabad], September 13).

The national clamor inside Pakistan for the government to respond to this act of overt and unwarranted aggression led to a short-lived decision to stop the movement of U.S. military supplies through Pakistan en route to Afghanistan. The raids were the major issue discussed at the 111th meeting of the Corps Commanders at General Headquarters in Rawalpindi on September 12-13.

The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) began mounting Combat Air Patrols (CAPs) over Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) for the first time since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. At the Government level, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s National Security Advisor, Major General (retd) Mehmud Durrani, formally wrote to his U.S. counterpart Stephen Hadley on September 5, warning that Pakistan would not allow any foreign forces to operate on its territory. This candid warning was issued to the Bush administration a day before Asif Ali Zardari was elected as the President of Pakistan (The News, September 13).

On the same day the United States was remembering the events of 9/11, the Pakistan Army was ordered to retaliate against any action by foreign troops inside the country. The Pakistan ambassador to the United States received assurances that the U.S.-led Coalition forces in Afghanistan would not operate inside Pakistan or launch any strike. However, the same night, Coalition forces launched another missile attack on Miranshah, killing more than 12 people. The escalating attacks by Coalition forces inside Pakistan have forced policymakers in Islamabad to seriously revisit Pakistan’s policy on the war on terror (The News, September 12).

An American government official quoted in a U.S. military newspaper described the Pakistani backlash to the September 3 Special Forces raid:

“[The raid was] an opportunity to see how the new Pakistani government reacted. If they didn’t do anything, they were just kind of fairly passive, like Musharraf was … then we felt like, okay, we can slowly up the ante, we can do maybe some more of these ops. But the backlash that happened, and especially the backlash in the diplomatic channels, was pretty severe… Once the Pakistanis started talking about closing down our supply routes, and actually demonstrated they could do it, once they started talking about shooting American helicopters, we obviously had to take seriously that maybe this [approach] was not going to be good enough. We can’t sustain ourselves in Afghanistan without the Pakistani supply routes. At the end of the day, we had to not let our tactics get in the way of our strategy. … As much as it may be good to get some of these bad guys, we can’t do it at the expense of being able to sustain ourselves in Afghanistan, obviously” (Air Force Times, September 29).

An editorial in Islamabad’s The News best encapsulated the frustration of Pakistanis:

“There is an escalating sense of furious impotence among the ordinary people of Pakistan. Many – perhaps most – of them are strongly opposed to the spread of Talibanization and extremist influence across the country: people who might be described as ‘moderates’. Many of them have no sympathy for the mullahs and their burning of girls’ schools and their medieval mindset. But if you bomb a moderate sensibility often enough, it has a tendency to lose its sense of objectivity and to feel driven in the direction of extremism. If America bombs moderate sensibilities often enough, you may find that its actions are the best recruiting sergeant that the extremists ever had” (The News, September12).

In another development, tribal elders met in Miranshah and announced their whole-hearted support for the Pakistan Government in any action it takes to face up to attacks by U.S./ Coalition forces on Pakistani soil. While welcoming the presence of PAF combat aircraft, which reportedly led to an unmanned U.S. drone withdrawing into Afghanistan territory, these tribal leaders vowed to fight alongside the Pakistani forces against all foreigners. The tribal leaders threatened to go further: “If missile attacks and bombing of our houses and markets do not stop, a tribal lashkar will launch a counter-attack inside Afghanistan” (Dawn, September 13).

Other than the combat patrols being undertaken by the PAF to thwart any ingress by American Predator UAVs, Pakistani security forces fired in the air to discourage a group of U.S. soldiers from crossing the Pakistan – Afghanistan border on the night of September 14-15. Seven U.S. helicopter gunships and two troop-carrying Chinook helicopters landed in the Afghan province of Paktika near the Zohba mountain range. U.S. troops from the Chinooks then tried to cross the border. As they did so, Pakistani paramilitary troops fired into the air and the U.S. troops halted their approach. The firing lasted for several hours, local people evacuated their homes and tribesmen took up defensive positions in the mountains (BBC, September 15). The reaction of the tribesmen indicates the adoption of an aggressive U.S. policy could well widen the insurgency by uniting the tribesmen with the Taliban – something that General Kayani has also alluded to. The Pakistan Government downplayed the event, saying the firing from the Pakistani side was carried out by the local tribesmen and not by Pakistani security forces.

Mutual Suspicions

The checkered history of Pakistan-U.S. relations is well known. The two countries have had the most unstable of ties ever since Pakistan first allied itself with the U.S. by joining the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO, 1955-79) and becoming the recipient of U.S. military hardware. Pakistan’s disillusionment with the United States commenced with the imposition of the U.S. arms embargo during the 1965 Indo-Pak war and was further crystallized by the hands-off stance of the United States during the 1971 Indo-Pak war which saw Pakistan dismembered. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan once again brought the two countries together, only to see the United States depart abruptly, leaving Pakistan to clean up the mess. A distrust of the United States and its intentions permeated the Pakistan national psyche, a situation which was played upon by politicians and religious leaders to further their own agendas. President Musharraf’s decision to align Pakistan with the U.S.-led war on terrorism once again brought the two countries together Notwithstanding the imperatives that forced Musharraf to join the U.S. bandwagon, his decision created enormous controversy throughout Pakistan and was one of the factors that precipitated his eventual fall from power.

The uneasiness in the alliance stems from a number of causes: the differing motivations of the United States and Pakistan in waging the war on terrorism; the fact that Afghanistan lies in Pakistan’s backyard and has long been considered by its military leadership as bestowing strategic depth on Pakistan; the ethnic, linguistic, cultural, social, tribal and religious affinities of the Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand Line; the persistence of the U.S. leadership in forging relations based on individuals who are in power; the growing alienation of the Pakistani populace with U.S. policies and the creeping perception that the war on terrorism is just an excuse for a campaign against Islam with the underlying theme of controlling the resources of mineral rich Central Asia while containing China.

In order for this alliance to survive, both countries need to understand that continuation of the military campaign is in their own national interest. It is vital, therefore, that the United States shed the cloak of unilateralism to wage this war together with Pakistan rather than alienating it by violating the latter’s sovereignty.

If the U.S. persists with its aggressive military unilateralism, it might be seen as following in the footsteps of the Soviets, whose ignominious retreat from Afghanistan spelled the demise of the USSR. If this happens, the United States could well be confronted with another Vietnam-like situation with no easy exit available. Interestingly, the aggressive stance of the Pakistan Army has been tempered by a more conciliatory attitude from Islamabad, with Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar stressing the need for the issues imperiling U.S.-Pakistan relations to be addressed in a pragmatic manner without bringing the two allies to a state of undesirable military confrontation (Arab News, September 14).


The War on Terrorism consists of two separate battles: the first being waged by the United States and Coalition forces against the Taliban inside Afghanistan and the second being waged by the Pakistan military against the extremist militants who have made FATA their base of operations. In order to bring this war to a successful end, the efforts being expended on these two battles need to be coordinated and integrated, taking into consideration the apprehensions of both Pakistan and the United States while satisfying their respective policy objectives. Only then can this troubled, albeit necessary, alliance survive the test of time.

The United States must also take into account the fragility of Pakistan’s democratic government in dealing with this situation and endeavor to strengthen rather than weaken it, since the failure of the nascent democratic dispensation in Islamabad could create an opening for the country’s military to step in once again. This is completely undesirable since democracy in Pakistan would be put on the shelves for at least another decade if not more, leading to further instability and a possible failure of the country as a viable nation-state.