Romney: the Pakistan perspective
The few words spoken by Mitt Romney in Monday’s debate seem to have strengthened the myth in Pakistan that Republicans are more favourably disposed towards Pakistan than Democrats. Like all myths, there is a grain of truth in this. But, as a study of the mercurial nature of US-Pakistan relations shows, by chance Republicans happened to be presidents precisely at times when situations required America to act the way it did.
A Democrat, Harry Truman, was in the White House when Liaquat Ali Khan, the first prime minister, became the first Pakistani leader to visit America. His visit produced no spectacular results.
Those days, Pakistan and India occupied a unique place in world politics. There were hardly any other sovereign ‘coloured’ states in the world and, for that reason, Pakistani and Indian leaders were given great respect and importance.
Liaquat’s visit should be seen in that perspective. It didn’t result in any alliance, but it did indicate the orientation of Pakistan’s foreign policy in days to come in a bipolar world.
The turning point came during the Eisenhower administration (1953-61) when Pakistan became a member of the US-led military pacts, besides having a bilateral military relationship with the US, and earned the sobriquet of being America’s most ‘allied ally’, prompting some analysts to say that Pakistan suffered from ‘pactitis’.
The friendship held good even during the Democratic administration led by Kennedy. Old-timers like me recall the popular enthusiasm that swept the country when Jackie visited Pakistan, rode a camel and donned the Jinnah cap. Ayub was then in power. Those were halcyon days, when Pakistan had no domestic enemies, no party or group waged jihad on Pakistan because it was an infidel state, and no madcap issued the fatwa that friendship with America was contrary to Sharia.
All except the communists were happy that Pakistan was in the right camp.
Yet, by chance, it had to be a Democratic administration when the relations between the two countries developed a chill for the first time when the Indians crossed the McMahon line and were beaten back by China. Pakistan’s position on the 1962 conflict in the Himalayas was what it should have been, and this led Kennedy to complain that Pakistan had not played the role expected of an American ally.
Would a Republican administration have behaved differently? Suppose China and India had gone to war when Eisenhower was in power.
Would the Republican president have behaved any differently during those mad, mad cold war days when there was a commie under every bush?
Three years later Pakistan and India fought their second war on Kashmir, and the Johnson administration made it absolutely clear where its sympathy lay by cutting off all arms supplies to Islamabad. The breach was complete, and even though Ayub, frustrated as much by the negative outcome of the war as by the aid cut-off, visited Washington to ‘explain’ things, Johnson refused to resume military supplies.
He was very angry. However, even when a Republican, Eisenhower’s vice president, moved into the White House, Bhutto failed to persuade Nixon to review US arms policy. Yet there was no trace of hostility in Nixon’s policies and utterances, and one has to read his books to see how they are full of kind and friendly references to Pakistan and Ayub.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was to bring the two countries closer than ever before. But bonhomie came only when a Republican from Hollywood was installed as America’s president. Even though the invasion on Christmas eve, 1979, came when a Democrat was the president, Carter refused to resume aid because of Ziaul Haq’s rule by the lash. With his strong human rights agenda Carter was in no mood to be friendly.
Under pressure from hawks in Congress, he reluctantly agreed to the CIA’s covert aid to the anti-Soviet fighters, but insisted that American arms should not fall into Soviet hands and that arms must come from some other countries.
Those arms came from Israel and Egypt (see Charlie Wilson’s War), both of which rushed captured Soviet arms to Pakistan.
The massive pouring of economic and military aid in two packages — including the F-16s — came during the Reagan and first Bush administrations. That perhaps was the apogee of US-Pakistan relations. Yet, let us not forget, that when the aid cut-off did finally take place again, it was a Republican president, the senior Bush, who refused to issue the annual certificate required under the Pressler amendment for aid to continue.
Charismatic Clinton had no reason to pump money into Pakistan, because terrorism had started raising its head, and a Pakistani, Aimal Kansi, had shocked the American people by murdering two CIA agents outside its Langley headquarters.
On the whole Clinton was quite friendly towards Pakistan and praised Islamabad’s role in Somalia, where Pakistani peacekeepers, along with American, had suffered casualties. And when Benazir visited the White House in 1995, Clinton said he was the first American leader to admit that it was wrong to hold back both the F-16s and the money.
Would Clinton have maintained his ‘no military aid’ posture if 9/11 had occurred in his presidency, America attacked Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and Pakistan joined the war on terror? By an extraordinary coincidence, it was again a Republican, George Bush Jr in the White House when Afghanistan once again became a battle theatre. Pakistan joined the war on terror and became America’s ‘major non-Nato ally’.
Barack Obama has not withheld aid; it continues and will for the next 15 years. As president, Obama’s policy has been in sharp contrast to his threats during the 2008 campaign that he would send troops into Pakistan to take out the ‘safe havens’.
That posture was good for winning votes; as president, he has behaved with restraint and shown a lot of understanding of Islamabad’s problems in dealing with the militants and didn’t agree with those who thought Pakistan knew where Osama bin Laden was hiding. If Romney wins, of which there is a fair chance, it is unlikely that US policy will undergo a major change towards Pakistan. As history shows, by sheer coincidence Republicans happened to be White House occupants when turmoil in Pakistan’s neighbourhood created situations in which America had no chance but to act the way it did.
Nor is there any evidence that any Democratic president, save Lyndon B. Johnson, showed any persistence in hostility towards Pakistan.