The US has played a key role in Pakistan’s foreign policy since 1950’s when, driven primarily by security considerations, we entered into a web of alliances with Washington making our country the most allied ally of the United States. The relationship was mutually beneficial. Washington was looking for allies to counter the challenge posed by the global ambitions of the Soviet Union. Pakistan needed security assistance to face the existential threat posed to its security by a hostile India. The arrangement between the US and Pakistan provided the former with a valuable ally in a strategically located region while India pursued a policy of non-alignment. Pakistan got from the US and other Western countries the badly needed security assistance and aid for accelerating its economic development. Problems arose in this relationship when Pakistan, oblivious of its client status, tried to act independently, for instance, by forging close relations with China in 1960’s and developing a nuclear programme which ultimately made it a de facto nuclear-weapon state.

Generally speaking, this was the nature of the Pakistan-US relationship throughout the Cold War. While Pakistan did benefit from the assistance provided by the US in economic and security fields, this aid was not cost free. In the process, Pakistan lost the “can do” mentality and became the victim of a dependence syndrome from which it continues to suffer. Pakistani governments and senior officials, instead of trying to overcome the problems confronting the country through their own efforts within the limits of its resources, sought their solution in deepening Pakistan’s dependence on the US largesse. The result was that our ministers and senior officials did not feel shy of kowtowing in front of their masters in Western capitals for the sake of aid and other favours. Gradually but inevitably, the nation as a whole lost the sense of dignity and self-respect in its dealings with the Western donor countries, narrowing Pakistan’s strategic manoeuvrability and foreclosing many of its foreign policy options. As the famous saying goes, beggars can’t be choosers.

The end of the Cold War brought about a paradigm shift in the global politics and in Pakistan-US relationship. Even before the end of the Cold War, the signs of the emerging global realities were quite clear. Soon after the Soviet military withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US terminated military and economic assistance to Pakistan, ostensibly on account of its nuclear programme. In reality, it was a signal to Pakistan that the US no longer needed its alliance with Islamabad in pursuit of its national interests. This was quite a shock to Pakistan’s officialdom which had forgotten for long how a self-respecting nation conducts its internal and external affairs by living within its own means. However, old habits die hard. Instead of drawing the right lessons from the disdain with which the US treated Pakistan in 1990’s and adjusting its internal and external policies accordingly, Pakistan embarked upon over-ambitious Kashmir and Afghanistan policies in 1990’s resulting in a strategic over-stretch.

The US ultimatum after 9/11 forced Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf to bring about a U-turn in its Afghanistan policy leading ultimately to TTP and a spate of terrorist acts throughout Pakistan. This was in reality the heavy price that Pakistan had to pay for its flawed Afghanistan policy of 1990’s. Following 9/11, Pakistan entered into a transactional relationship with the US, despite protestations to the contrary by both sides, in which it agreed to serve US interests in Afghanistan in return for economic and military assistance. The inflow of foreign aid eased the worries of our leaders and officials, whether under Pervez Musharraf or the subsequent elected governments, thereby lessening the pressure for necessary adjustments in our internal and external policies. The way in which the US conducted the air raid into Pakistan to take out Osama bin Laden and later attacked Pakistan’s border posts martyring a large number of Pakistani soldiers in 2011 showed the contempt in which it held Pakistan and the mistrust between the two. It also demonstrated the growing divergence of the strategic interests of the two countries in the 21st century.

The reality is that the relationship between Pakistan and the US has been the victim of underlying strategic divergence since 1990’s when Pakistan in the eyes of the US lost its importance as an ally in the global campaign against the erstwhile Soviet Union and communism. This reality was obscured for some time only by the imperative of mutual cooperation in dealing with the post-9/11 Afghanistan. China’s rise as an economic super power and potentially a great military power during the past three decades has aroused America’s concerns. It views China as an emerging rival for power and influence, especially in Asia. It has, therefore, embarked upon a well-calculated policy to contain China through rebalancing its forces in favour of the Asia-Pacific region and strengthening a string of alliances on China’s periphery to contain it. America’s fast developing strategic partnership with India, which continues to pose an existential threat to Pakistan, is part of the framework of these alliances. The main strategic thrust of the US policy towards Pakistan is to persuade it to accept a subservient role under India’s hegemony as a bulwark against the expansion of China’s power and influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. Pakistan, on the other hand, views its strategic partnership with China as the corner stone of its foreign and security policies to counter the threat posed by India which has been covertly engaged in fomenting acts of terrorism in Pakistan in the recent past.

In addition, the US has developed the habit of blaming Pakistan for the consequences of its deeply flawed Afghanistan policy pursued since 9/11. Washington made blunders of monumental proportions by trying to impose a government of its own choice and its own cultural values on Afghanistan ignoring the ground realities in that country, and by pursuing a military solution instead of a political settlement of the Afghanistan quagmire. It is only recently that it has started emphasizing the need for a political settlement between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban. Instead of appreciating the support that Pakistan at the cost of its own internal security provided to the US in fighting its battles in Afghanistan, it has continued to make demands on Pakistan to “do more”. In general, Washington’s policy makers and the US generals ignore the fact that the solution of the armed conflict in Afghanistan lies in a political settlement in that country and not in the so-called sanctuaries for the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

For all these reasons, especially the long-term strategic divergence between Pakistan and the US on account of China, the Pakistan-US relationship cannot regain the strength of the Cold War era in the foreseeable future. The advent of the Trump presidency is likely to reinforce that trend. A clear evidence of what is to come was provided by the failure of PM Nawaz Sharif’s Special Assistant on Foreign Affairs to secure even a single meeting with any member of the Trump transition team during a two-week visit to the US. This is, however, not to deny the importance of Pakistan-US friendship and the need for mutual cooperation on such issues as nuclear non-proliferation, the combat against terrorism, and peace and stability in Afghanistan and South Asia. However, our efforts to preserve this friendship should be grounded in regional and global realities and be informed by realistic expectations. The imperative of the foregoing analysis is that Pakistan should reduce its dependence on the US and expand its foreign policy options.