Pakistan USA Relations: Challenges & Response

Shahid H. Raja
18 min readNov 1, 2021


“To be an enemy of America can be dangerous, but to be a friend is fatal” ~ Henry Kissinger

Although the USA was one of the first countries to recognise Pakistan soon after the latter came into existence in 1947, bilateral relations between the two countries have always been very complex, and unstable changing with the changing geopolitical environment and the requirements of the USA foreign policy in this part of the world. The entire history of Pakistan’s foreign policy is the history of this love-hate relationship between the two countries. And they will remain so because of the difference in perceptions of their respective policy-making elite about the geostrategic dynamics of South Asia.

A recap of the history of Pakistan’s foreign relations is enough to understand the nature of bilateral relations which have been always at the tactical and not strategic level. While the USA was looking for allies to counter communism in this part of the world, Pakistan had no choice. Its decision to befriend the USA was shaped primarily by several historical imperatives, geopolitical compulsions and sheer objective realities of the day.

  1. Historical Path-determination

Soon after independence, Pakistan tried to cultivate good relations with the USA. Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah stated in an interview “America needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs America. He sent his emissary to the USA for financial and military assistance which was not accepted by the Americans, but it did give a hint of future trends in Pakistan’s foreign policy. His successors followed suit and showed ample evidence of their tilt toward emerging superpower.

2. Dominance of West-oriented elite in policy formulation

After independence, many of Pakistan’s key policymaking institutions were either headed by the Britons or those, including the nation’s founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who had studied in Britain. Despite disillusionment at what Pakistanis perceived as Britain’s failure to treat Pakistan fairly in dealings where India was involved, Pakistan remained in the Commonwealth even after the country became a republic under the constitution of 1956. However, it was the warmth and bonhomie between the military brass of the two countries which further cemented the close relations. Pakistani generals were already hooked to greater cooperation with the West which, in their opinion, was more advanced in economic and technical fields and had sufficient resources and determination to support its allies.

3. External Security Compulsions

An outbreak of war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir soon after their independence acerbated the already sour relations between them in the wake of the blood-soaked partition of the British Indian Empire was a forerunner for a long-term hostility between India and Pakistan. Afghanistan’s hostility on the eastern front made this sense of insecurity more accurate; hence the need on its part for the latest weaponry to put up a credible defence in case of external aggression necessitated the friendship with the West.

4. Budgetary Solvency

The deepening economic crisis in the 1950s was due to the falling prices of jute and cotton once the Korean War was over, and the food crises also contributed to this decision. Timely offer of the USA of one-million-ton wheat sold the policymakers to the USA. It helped to overcome food shortages and built a lot of goodwill in Pakistan for the donor.

5. Need for Resources for Economic Development

Pakistan was a typically underdeveloped country when it came into existence but its population was expecting too much from a state which was faced with myriad challenges. Economic development was the biggest among these challenges, requiring huge resource-financial and human-both in acute short supply. The only country which could help Pakistan to come out of its poverty trap was USA-hence the tilt towards the USA was but natural

6. Need for Friends

Pakistan suffered from a sense of isolation in the World. The efforts to promote unity in the Muslim World were not making headway. It also became clear that the UN and the Commonwealth would not facilitate the solution of the Pakistan-India problems, especially the Kashmir dispute.

7. Lack of Better Alternative Options

Keeping in view the situation Pakistan found itself, it was the only option available although for the USA it was not its first option. The USA had been consistently wooing India to join it in its Cold War efforts to contain China and encircle USSR. It was only after India chose to befriend USSR that the USA came closer to Pakistan. Delay on the part of the Soviet bureaucracy to finalize the date of the visit of the Pakistani prime minister to Moscow may be an insignificant reason to push Pakistan towards the Capitalist camp; the die had already been cast as explained below

Nature and extent of USA-Pakistan relations during the 1950s

There were several dimensions and intensity of the relationship between Pakistan and the Western block led by the USA. Some of these are as follows.

  1. Mutual Cooperation: February 1954-Pakistan started developing close cooperation with Turkey, later expanded to include other allies May 1954-US Pakistan Mutual Defence Assistance Agreement. A Bilateral Agreement of Cooperation was signed between Pakistan and the United States in March 1959 whereby the United States agreed to supply military and economic assistance to Pakistan
  2. Defence Pacts: In September 1954, Pakistan joined the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) created to counter communist aggression or subversion. Pakistan’s plea to include all kinds of aggression was not accepted. One year later (September 1955) Pakistan joined the Baghdad Pact (renamed CENTO in 1959 after Iraq’s withdrawal) for strengthening the defensive capability of the member states “solely” against the communist menace.
  3. Joint Exercises: Pakistan’s armed forces participated in several joint military exercises with the western countries
  4. Military Base: 1956: President Dwight Eisenhower requested prime minister Suhrawardy to lease Peshawar Air Station to the American Army for keeping an eye on the Soviet Union and its ballistic missile programme. The request was granted by the prime minister and in 1958, Pakistan leased out Badaber, near Peshawar, for ten years

Benefits of the Tilt towards the West

Pakistan’s alignment with the United States yielded several advantages.

  1. Economic Assistance: American economic assistance grants, loans, goods and services gave a boost to Pakistan’s faltering economy. Pakistan received grant assistance valued at US $ 650 million, and credit facilities worth US $ 55 million.
  2. Capacity Building: U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group was set up to advise on the modernisation of armed forces and security arrangements. Similarly in the civilian field
  3. Military Modernisation: Several divisions were re-equipped, a few new ones were raised, and restructuring of the defence system/came in handy in subsequent wars with India. Training facilities improved and Pakistan military officers were sent to the United States on different training courses
  4. Recognition & Image: Pakistan became an important member of the Western lobby and got prominence on the regional/global stage

Costs of tilting towards the USA

However, the alignment with the West was not cost-free.

  1. No Independent Foreign Policy: Pakistan’s independent foreign policy was compromised and the prospects for improvement of its relations with the Soviet Union suffered heavily. The Soviet Union made a blistering criticism of Pakistan’s alignment with the U.S. and threatened Pakistan with dire consequences if Pakistan allowed its territory to be used against the Soviet Union. Besides extending support to India on the Kashmir question, it also supported Afghanistan’s irredentist claims on Pakistani territory. The Soviet Union paid back its revenge on the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965, emerged as the biggest supplier of military hardware to India
  2. Muslim World Alienation: Although Pakistan vigorously championed the right of self-determination for Muslims around the world. Pakistan’s efforts for the independence movements of Indonesia, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Eritrea were significant and initially led to close ties between these countries and Pakistan. However, Pakistan’s participation in defence pacts came in conflict with its desire to cultivate close and cordial relations with the Muslim states. Except for Iran and Turkey which shared the defence arrangements, the Middle Eastern states responded negatively to Pakistan’s security ties with the West. Earlier, Pakistan adopted an ambiguous policy towards the Suez Crisis of1956, which alienated Egypt.
  3. Exclusion from NAM: Pakistan also lost ground with the developing countries. Pakistan was very active in organising the Bandung Conference in 1955 but, when the spirit of Bandung crystallised into the Non-aligned Movement (NAM) in 1961, Pakistan was excluded because it participated in defence pacts.
  4. Distance from Socialist Block: It kept its relations with the socialist/communist countries at a low level to strengthen its credentials as a Western ally. Although China avoided an open condemnation of Pakistan’s participation in these pacts and showed a remarkable understanding of the factors that led Pakistan to join the Western camp, Pakistan maintained a safe distance from China and its policy on the seating of China in the UN was more in line with the U.S. perspective.
  5. Lukewarm Support from Allies: Despite Pakistan’s full support to the USA in all issues, the latter was not prepared to extend enough diplomatic support to Pakistan in its problems with India This raised doubts in Pakistan about the credibility of American support.
  6. Institutional Imbalance: Pakistan had already inherited an over-developed military machine as a colonial legacy in contrast with the civilian institutions, American military aid further strengthened their power vis a vis other institutions resulting in the derailment of the democratic train at the start of the journey.

No doubts these are very strong arguments against the decision of Pakistan’s leadership in the 1950s to join the Western camp. However, while criticising the foreign policy elite we should not forget or ignore the objective conditions prevailing in those tumultuous periods, the precarious situation Pakistan was facing and most importantly, the options it had to choose from. Keeping in view the challenges Pakistan was facing at the time of its independence coupled with the state of affairs at that moment of international relations, Pakistan had very limited options to choose from. It was the best option available at the time to safeguard our national interest.

However, it was one-way traffic. When choosing between India and Pakistan, the USA had been consistently wooing India to join it in its Cold War efforts to contain China and encircle USSR but failed. It was the 1962 India China War that provided the USA with a golden opportunity it had been seeking all along to come closer to India. Responding to Nehru’s letters for American assistance, the U.S. and its allies rushed weapons and military equipment to India.

Knowing that the honeymoon was over, Pakistan started cultivating close cooperation with China for the same reasons it courted the USA in the first place. The arms embargo during the 1965 War between Pakistan and India which hurt Pakistan more due to its total reliance on American military armaments, resulted in further deterioration of relations between the two countries.

During the 1970s the USA again needed Pakistan when fearing an impending defeat in Vietnam, USA was desperately looking for ways to take revenge from USSR by bleeding it to death in its soft belly –Afghanistan. Bhutto’s refusal to toe the American line cost him his life and was replaced by General Zia. He was extensively used for the defeat of the USSR in Afghanistan and its eventual disintegration.

However, this Faustian bargain between Pakistan and the USA sowed the seeds of modern terrorism which started haunting both countries and has now engulfed the entire Middle East and Europe. 9/11 was one such act of terrorism. Although it was the worst intelligence failure of the American security establishment, Afghanistan was picked as the target of US vengeance. Pakistan was forced to join in this War on Terrorism by threatening to “bomb into the stone age”.

Present bonhomie between Pakistan and America which started in 2018, is the result of the realisation by the USA that even after spending billions of dollars and killing hundreds and thousands of innocent people notwithstanding its casualties during the 20 years of war, there are no signs of any clear US victory. President Trump was desperate to extricate American forces before the election campaign gets going and needed Pakistan to bail it out of this quagmire.

On the other hand, Pakistan was in urgent need of financial assistance to overcome its economic difficulties. Thus the convergence of the vested interests of both parties forced them to make concessions to each other’s demands keeping the pursuit of their respective long term strategic interests on hold. That’s why the current warm relations between the two countries are an aberration, not the norm-rather transitory and deceptive,

Future of US-Pakistan Relations

What would be the nature of relations between the USA and Pakistan will depend upon the priorities of the American foreign policy based on the geopolitical compulsions and evolving regional realignments. Superpowers have global agenda; hence they are every country’s neighbour. As such their relations with a country will depend upon their own sets of priorities for the realisation of their respective national interests. The relevance and usefulness of a country including its geostrategic relations are, therefore, directly proportionate to its usefulness for the achievement of the foreign policy objectives of the superpowers. Sometimes geo-strategically located small countries become more important than large countries not enjoying that privilege. Pakistan is one such example; it is located in a region that has a special significance for the USA for the following reasons

  1. Geostrategic Relevance: Geo-strategically, South Asia is the most important region for the USA because of its proximity to Central Asia, the soft belly of its rival Russia, and to Tibet, the soft belly of its other rival, China. It’s bordering the Indian Ocean from where 80% of ships carrying goods to and from its Allies pass, making it even more significant. Similarly, it is the outer border of the Middle East where the USA and its allies are fighting for resources, markets and hegemony.
  2. Geopolitical Significance: Geopolitically, South Asia is again a very important region for the USA as the two nuclear powers of the day, India and Pakistan, are at daggers drawn with each other. Any miscalculation and the world can easily plunge into 3rd World War with the possible use of nuclear arms. Additionally, it has India which could be a perfect counterpoise to China. Last but not the least, it is the hotbed of international terrorism-presently the biggest worry of the USA. And if any terrorist group gets hold of the nuclear arm, it will end up being used against its Allies or maybe against the USA forces stationed on various bases
  3. Geo-economic Importance: Geoeconomically, it is one of the most lucrative regions with a huge market and vast reservoir of educated and skilled manpower. Witnessing impressive growth rates, there is an increasing and prosperous middle-class yearning for western goods and services. Its developmental needs attract a lot of FDI every year

Based on the above perceptions of the USA and the significance of South Asia for safeguarding its national interest, the USA has adopted a multi-pronged strategy to achieve its objectives in South Asia using all the tools available in its tool kit- constructive engagement, threats, cajoling, aid, trade and whatnot.

In this grand strategy of the USA, India enjoys a pivotal position for the realisation of American foreign policy goals. Although the multi-dimensional cooperation between India and the USA is not new and started during the 1980s due to the better credentials of India as compared to Pakistan, the new geopolitical and geostrategic developments have brought them even closer. As such, relations between the USA and India are strategic, long term and comprehensive as both the countries are partners in glove for the achievement of their respective objectives. While the USA is keen to counter the strategic alliance of an emerging China and a resurging Russia, India intends to keep China out of the Indian Ocean for which American backing is essential-see the India-US agreement i.e. LEMOA in that context.

On the other hand, the USA is mindful of the geostrategic importance of Pakistan for the furtherance or hindrance of its foreign policy goals in this volatile region. It is therefore ensuring that Pakistan’s estrangement on account of cosy relations between the USA and India doesn’t cross the threshold of its becoming a total satellite state of China. Employing the time-tested policy of carrots and sticks, it is engaging Pakistan’s political elite through development aid and keeping close liaison with Pakistan’s security establishment through its defence establishment.

At the same time, its sticks include suspension of civil and military aid to Pakistan, informal pressure through World Bank/IMF, using diplomatically harsh language and putting its influence on the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to include Pakistan in the Black List for terror financing. It is augmented with low-level terrorism/insurgency in Pakistan through India and Afghanistan. The recent surge in Indian hostility towards Pakistan and its opposition to China’s Pakistan Economic Corridor should be seen in this rapidly evolving geopolitical realignment.

What Pakistan should do?

The foreign policy of a country is the obverse of its domestic policy- achieving the same goals through skilful handling of its foreign relations. Accordingly, the effectiveness of the foreign policy of a country is dependent on its domestic situation on the one hand and the way its diplomatic corps exploit the opportunities available at any particular time on the other. As such, its success or failure is directly proportionate to domestic successes or failures; even the most skilful diplomat cannot market a domestic failure as the crowning success of its country in the global arena.

While making all-out efforts to have good relations with the USA, Pakistan must keep in mind the cardinal principle of global politics-there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies in international relations, only permanent interests. Hence the bilateral relations between the USA and Pakistan will keep on changing with the changes in objective realities and the corresponding changes in the perceptions of the policymakers in the USA. Presently Pakistan is extremely useful for the realisation of its immediate objective of honourable exit from Afghanistan; hence all the carrots. Once it is achieved, we should expect a lot of sticks from the USA known for bullying the weak. With that in view, here are some suggestions

1. Setting our House in Order

Formulation of a proactive foreign policy anchored around a broad-based national consensus on our national interest is the need of the day. While territorial integrity and national sovereignty would remain the cornerstones of this national interest, we should now emphasize improving the quality of life of its citizens as the pivot of our foreign policy. For this, we have to set our house in order by making concerted efforts in at least these areas namely

Containing Corona Virus Pandemic

Promoting Democracy

Strengthening Institutions


Accelerating Economic Growth/Human Development

Curbing Terrorism/Extremism

2. Reducing the Trust Deficit

The USA is still a super power-no need to antagonise it. Even China has no objection to better USA-Pakistan relations. Similarly, the USA and its allies are our largest trade partners, as well as the source of capital goods. More than two million strong diasporas living in the USA and Europe are our biggest source of remittances while more than 20,000 students always remain enrolled in their universities.

However, despite all the history of good relations and the above mentioned strong interdependence, there is too much trust deficit between the two countries which needs to be reduced. Some of the areas in which this trust deficit is quite visible are Afghanistan, nuclear assent, terrorism and Pakistan-China relations. Pakistan should assure the USA that our relations with other countries particularly with China and Russia are based on mutuality of interests and are in no way against the vital interests of the USA.

One of the ways the USA can reduce our dependence on China is to ensure greater FDI flows to Pakistan plus its access to access to American military technology to the extent it is available to other countries-India, Saudi Arabia etc. Of course, Pakistan is ready to provide all the safeguards to ensure that we do not transfer this technology to China-the main allegation of the American firms against Pakistan

3. Seeking Convergence of Interests

One of the most effective strategies used in foreign policy is to explore the areas where there is greater convergence of mutual interests between two or more countries. Pakistan should, therefore, insist that the USA must develop a long-term strategic partnership with Pakistan in such cases where there is a convergence of mutual interests. Containment of global terrorism and degradation of terrorist outfits is one of the primary goals of American foreign policy. Pakistan, which is one of the worst victims of terrorism, is equally interested in its elimination. Terrorism is a common enemy needing a long term strategy and participation of all the stakeholders including the USA to launch coordinated efforts for its elimination. Demanding Pakistan to deal with terrorism alone without removal of the irritants, sharing of intelligence, and conducting joint anti-terrorism operations is a recipe for disaster.

4. Trade, not Aid

Improving the quality of life of the citizens, henceforth the pivot of our foreign policy, is dependent, among other things, on accelerating the rate of economic growth of the country. This, in turn, needs massive resources. While Pakistan would welcome an increased volume of American civil aid to help Pakistan in its economic growth, it would be direct investment by the American multinationals and greater access to US markets we are interested in. The USA can play an extremely crucial role directly as well as indirectly. One such step could be to desist from issuing too many travel advisories restricting the visits of foreign investors to Pakistan. Similarly, its positive nod to multilateral institutions like the World Bank/IMF can go a long way in boosting foreign investment in Pakistan. And that FATF sword-the sooner it is lifted, the better.

5. Greater US Indulgence in South Asia

The USA is extremely keen to maintain its influence in South Asia and contain China- OK, then it should play a proactive and positive role in an amicable resolution of all interstate disputes in the region. This includes the Kashmir dispute which is the core issue between the two countries vitiating the peace of the Subcontinent. It should also desist India from creating unrest in Pakistan, particularly in Baluchistan and Karachi.

However, Pakistan should make it clear to the USA that no doubt India is a bigger and more powerful country that has more to offer to the USA than Pakistan-as such, Pakistan does not expect the same treatment from the USA as it extends to India. However, it should also make it clear to the USA that in no case Pakistan would accept the regional hegemony of India as envisaged in the American new security strategy, not become a subservient state of India

6. Drawing the Lines

Genuine interests of the USA must be protected-terrorism, safe exit from Afghanistan, nuclear safety guarantees etc. However, not at cost of genuine interests- CPEC, Kashmir, Nuclear deterrence. Pakistan should make it clear to the USA that nuclear deterrence is our first line of defence because of its cost-effectiveness for a country with limited strategic depth and a huge imbalance in conventional defence capability against its arch-rival. However, we should assure the USA that our nuclear assets are only for defence and have made foolproof arrangements for its security so that they do not fall into the hands of the terrorists- by design or by default.

Pakistan should remind American policymakers to see Pakistan from a telescopic rather than microscopic end; we are neither an AFPAK country nor a breakaway region of India. Pakistan is an independent country with its own identity. You may not like to treat us equal to India but do treat us as a separate country of more than 200 million people having its national interest to look after. And despite the growing macroeconomic risk, the Pakistani economy is home to a growing middle class and a potential market for American investors in the consumer goods, energy, materials, real estate and retail sectors.


One of the basic reasons for the love-hate relationship between Pakistan and the USA is the 180-degree divergence between the respective strategic cultures of both countries. Pakistan’s policymaking elite has always viewed its relationship with the US through an idealistic prism, considering the US as a front-line protector against a much more potent adversary India. Against these misplaced and exaggerated hopes of Pakistan, the US being a global power has always treated Pakistan as a disposable instrument helpful in pursuing its strategic interests in the region.

Despite Pakistan’s geostrategic location and its nuclear status, Pakistan is even losing that importance to the USA after its withdrawal from Afghanistan and its pivot towards Asia. In the emerging reconfiguration of global politics, Pakistan has little utility for the US policy of containing China which has deep historical ties with Pakistan. On the other hand, India, aspiring for a defining role in global policies and an endemic rivalry with China, is more than willing to serve as a fulcrum in the US Asia Pivot policy.


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