Pakistan Remains Central to U.S. Asia Interests Relations between the United States and Pakistan have been uneven over the years. From its early days, Pakistan has sought U.S. support, and the U.S. has provided it in varying degrees.

Pakistan Remains Central to U.S. Asia Interests

U.S. President George W. Bush, with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, speaks in the White House Rose Garden. Mark Wilson/Getty Images hide caption

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Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Map of Pakistan Alice Kreit, NPR hide caption

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Alice Kreit, NPR

Map of Pakistan

Alice Kreit, NPR

Pakistan has been central to U.S. interests in Asia since its creation in 1947, but relations between the two countries have been uneven over the years.

From its early days, Pakistan has sought U.S. support and the United States has provided it in varying degrees, depending on where Pakistan fit in the spectrum of American interests. In some cases, Pakistan was seen as an ally in the fight against communism. In other cases, it was seen as a potential nuclear threat to regional stability.

The history of relations between the U.S. and Pakistan also has closely tracked the history of U.S. relations with Pakistan's biggest rival, India.

The Fight Against Communism

The man known as the "Father of the Nation," Muhammad Ali Jinnah, sought to align Pakistan with the West even before its independence from Britain was official. He told U.S. officials that Muslim countries would need U.S. assistance to resist possible aggression from the Soviet Union.

During the 1950s, the United States saw Pakistan as a front in the fight against communism and provided more than a billion dollars in aid to the country that one former military dictator, General Ayub Khan, described as America's "most allied ally in Asia."

The United States was also supplying weapons and ammunition to India, again in the hope that India would help contain the spread of communism from China.

When Pakistan and India aimed those weapons at each other in their war over Kashmir in 1965, the United States was able to help force a stalemate by imposing a military embargo on both countries.

Turning Back to Pakistan

India, then, turned to the Soviet Union for military aid, giving the United States a bigger incentive to resume its military assistance to Pakistan. The country was still firmly in the hands of what Pakistanis call a "khaki man" — a ruler in Army uniform.

The army was dominated by officers from West Pakistan, who by 1971 were using American weapons to try to put down an insurrection in East Pakistan. In March of 1971, the Pakistani Army was accused of launching a systematic campaign to kill anyone who might be capable of leading a revolt, including East Pakistani Muslim doctors, teachers, intellectuals and students.

On the advice of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, then-President Richard Nixon ignored reports from the American consul in East Pakistan, who wrote that the Pakistani Army was committing atrocities. The Nixon administration violated a congressionally imposed arms embargo so it could provide weapons to the military leaders in West Pakistan. The conflict ended with the independence of East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh.

The Nuclear Arms Race

In 1974, India began a South Asian arms race by testing a nuclear weapon. Pakistan began its own program under A.Q. Khan, working secretly through the next dozen years to enrich enough uranium for its own nuclear bomb.

In 1979, the United States discontinued more than $80 million in aid to Pakistan after the CIA confirmed that Pakistan was building a nuclear enrichment plant.

The aid cutoff didn't last long. President Jimmy Carter offered to resume it after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The Soviets backed the Marxist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan against insurgents; most of them were Islamic fundamentalist fighters called "mujahideen." The United States and Saudi Arabia supported the insurgents, funneling money and weapons to them through the Pakistani intelligence services. That aid increased sharply after Ronald Reagan became president in 1981.

Despite the free-flowing aid, the United States continued to raise concerns about Pakistan's suspected nuclear program. There were efforts in Congress to cut off aid after nuclear experts warned that Pakistan was only "two screwdriver turns" away from assembling a nuclear bomb.

President Reagan kept on certifying that Pakistan did not have nuclear weapons right up through the end of his administration.

The Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989 and the U.S. no longer needed Pakistan's help in arming the Mujahideen.

Uneasy Relations Continue

Throughout the 1990s, relations between the United States and Pakistan remained uneasy because of disputes over Pakistan's nuclear program and allegations that it was obtaining missile technology from China.

Congress blocked sales of some military hardware to Pakistan, but relented from time to time in an effort to keep Pakistan's military strength in balance with that of India.

In 1998, after a series of Indian nuclear tests, Pakistan conducted tests of its own. The Clinton administration announced sanctions against both countries. The administration later waived most of the bans, except those on the sales of certain weapons and technology that could have both civilian and military uses.

P.J. Crowley, who was a special assistant to President Clinton for national security affairs, says that although the United States was obliged to sanction Pakistan for its behavior, the decision had costs that are being felt today.

"We lost that contact with the next generation of the Pakistani military leadership," Crowley says.

As a result, Crowley, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, says the United States doesn't have the influence it might have had.

Policy Reversal

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration reversed its policy on Pakistan, boosting military aid by billions of dollars in hopes of winning Pakistan's support for anti-terrorism operations and the war in Afghanistan.

U.S. support for Gen. Pervez Musharraf has not helped the U.S. image among Pakistanis, many of whom see the United States as thwarting democracy. A 2007 survey by Pew Global Attitudes showed that only 15 percent of Pakistanis have a favorable view of the United States.

Some Pakistanis say that former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's political hopes have been hurt by the perception that the United States is supporting her bid for a power-sharing deal with Musharraf.

Stephen P. Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says it may be too late for an arrangement that includes Musharraf, since Bhutto may be aiming for a deal with the Pakistani Army that would push Musharraf out altogether.

Cohen says the Bush administration's Pakistan policy has been steered too much by its Afghanistan policy. Ultimately, Cohen says, "the future of South Asia is going to be determined by the relationship between Pakistan and India, and the United States will have to develop a policy that deals with both sides."