If the US genuinely wants to 'reset' relations with Pakistan, it would actively engage with Pakistan's civilian leaders, which is not happening.

So we hear it again – like a broken record, on any given day the US President can tweet or give an interview chastising Pakistan’s record in combatting terrorism and hindrance to peace – and then within a few weeks reach out to Pakistan by sending his top envoy with a personal letter requesting help from the same country he says the United States cannot trust. 

The last month—between President Trump’s November Fox News interview and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s announcement on 14th December that Pakistan was brokering a US-Taliban meeting—has been hectic even for the usually tumultuous diplomatic relationship between the two allies. The answer lies in US reliance on Pakistan’s military.

For those who argue that the United States prefers democracy in Pakistan – an alternative argument could be made it is precisely America’s cosy relationship with the Pakistan Army, that the powers that be cannot quit Pakistan despite the alleged double game. It could be said that the United States prefers to deal with the Pakistan Army rather than its civilian leaders, and indeed history proves so.

So how then, can the Americans come to term with their criticism of its main ally in Pakistan – the army?

An intimate history 

Daniel Markey, a longtime observer of US-Pakistan relations, wrote in his book, No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad, that despite all the problems and trust deficit that the United States had with Pakistan and its military – the answer lay in managing the problems rather than finding a solution.

He is of the opinion there is no way around the fact that the two allies have contrasting methods of achieving an end goal in Afghanistan, yet the army is the only factor that the Americans can meaningfully engage with to bring about an end goal in Afghanistan.

Some argue that it is this end goal of Afghan peace that draws the two close to each other. Long term critic but arguably Washington’s top Pakistan expert, Professor Christine Fair has long argued that the American political and military leadership play into the Pakistani Generals’ games.

She has repeatedly insisted that American officials go too far in placating Pakistan’s army and its intelligence which also draws its leadership from the military. Her logic along with scholars such as Markey and Bruce Reidel is that the US is too reliant on the Pakistani army for Afghanistan.

However the Pakistani military’s love affair with US leadership goes way back to 1947 and the officer corps that inherited the British Army’s ‘Great Game’ against the Russians in Central Asia. Pakistan’s first military ruler, Field Marshal Ayub Khan was one of America’s closest friends - his welcome by John F. Kennedy remains one of the most poignant state visits by any leader in the Cold War. Similarly, presidents Eisenhower and Johnson were also close friends with Ayub.

In contrast the civilian leader, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto never had a close relationship with any US leader, and former Pakistan Chief of Army Staff, General Mirza Aslam Beg has even gone as far to say that former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger had Bhutto assassinated through General Zia.

General Zia himself was extremely close to Ronald Reagan and General Pervez Musharraf is widely praised by President George W Bush, and Dick Cheney, in their memoirs. The sheer manner in which Reagan praises Zia publicly is something quite remarkable given Zia’s own contested and controversial legacy in his native Pakistan. 

So with such a rich and intimate history between Pakistan’s military rulers and American Presidents, one wonders what is all the hype surrounding American pressure and public censuring these days.

Changing Times?

Two recent happenings point to perhaps a slightly different attitude in the US. One was a very widely circulated scholarly paper by a former US military officer who served in Pakistan. In it, a retired Colonel, David Smith, looks into the private conversations he had with his fellow Pakistani officers whilst at Staff College in Quetta. It is unique, and unheard of, to breach the protocol of private conversations during a year of studies and turn them into a book or paper. But Smith himself says it will be quite a long time if ever that an American officer returns to Quetta to do a staff course. That is quite telling i.e. that the United States will no longer send their officers there – this along with American cancelling Pakistani officers studying in the US is a serious break from historical military diplomacy.

However despite the near-constant pressure from President Trump and Ambassador Nikki Haley, and leading US legislators like Rand Paul, Lindsey Graham, and Louie Gohmert , the likes of General Mattis, the current Secretary of Defence still try to show sympathy to the Pakistan Army.

In any given month, there is a revolving door of US Generals coming to meet Pakistani Generals. Sometimes it is the NATO Commander from Afghanistan, sometimes it’s the all-powerful CENTCOM Chief, or the head of SOCOM.

While Trump and other senior civilians still blame Pakistan for the Osama bin Laden episode, the senior most American military officials including the one who planned the Abbottabad raid still say that Pakistan were not involved in hiding bin Laden.

The question is if the Americans really wanted to reset civil-military relations in Pakistan, they would pay more attention in meeting and maintain good relations with the civilian leaders of Pakistan. There is no evidence of that, the US ambassador in Pakistan is more often in military offices than with civilian counterparts.

The Pakistan Army and US relationship is a love-hate relationship which is too contradictory to offer any solutions. While American academics and politicians loathe and speak out against Pakistan – the American military urges its leadership to engage with the Pakistani military.

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