Pakistan: Unstable U.S. Ally

Pakistan, a nuclear power that has been a haven for al Qaeda, is now in flux. Three student readings offer a brief primer on Pakistan's often violent history and its relationship with the U.S. Discussion questions and subjects for further inquiry follow.

General Pervez Musharraf, President of Pakistan, aligned his nation with the United States after 9/11 and became, in President Bush's words, "a major non-NATO ally." Pakistan, a nuclear power that borders Afghanistan, has been a haven for al Qaeda, the Taliban, other jihadists and probably Osama bin Laden himself. Pakistan has suffered from much political instability and, after recent parliamentary elections, appears today to be undergoing significant change.

Most students probably know little about Pakistan. The three student readings below offer a brief primer on its recent, often violent, history and its relationship with the United States. Discussion questions and suggested subjects for further inquiry follow.

See "Afghanistan: The Return of the Taliban and Heroin" (Reading 2) for more on the relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban.


Student Reading 1:

"With us or against us"

"You are either one hundred percent with us or one hundred percent against us." This is what Richard Armitage, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, told Lt. General Mahmood Ahmed, Pakistan's intelligence chief, on September 11, 2001. (Jonathan Schell, "Are You With Us...or Against Us?", 11/12/07)

Until that date, Pakistan's dictatorial leader, Pervez Musharraf, who served as both president and army chief, had supported the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. The Taliban was the organization responsible for the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The Taliban had given Osama bin Laden protection and free rein to establish training facilities for what became al Qaeda.

But at that juncture, General Musharraf decided to be "with" the U.S. And so Pakistan, President Bush said, became "a major non-NATO ally" in the "war on terror." The general agreed to work with the U.S. to capture or kill bin Laden and to root out other jihadists. Nevertheless, for the past six years, bin Laden has probably been holed up in Pakistan's rugged western mountains bordering Afghanistan, where a Pashtun ethnic group's strict code requires protection of any guest.

During these years, al Qaeda, Taliban fighters, and home-grown militants have also found havens in Pakistan's western tribal areas, where tribal law comes first. Army attacks to eliminate these refuges have had limited success. At times Pakistani officers who are apparently sympathetic to the militants led half-hearted efforts to oust them.

The alliance also gave the U.S. military use of Pakistani airfields and the right to fly over its territory, and obliged Pakistani intelligence services to cooperate with American intelligence.

In return, the U.S. has given Pakistan at least $10 billion, 75 percent in military aid, 15 percent for general budget support, and 10 percent for development or humanitarian assistance, according to a Center for Strategic and International Studies estimate. The Bush administration also ended sanctions it had imposed on the Pakistan after it tested nuclear weapons in 1998.

American critics of this turnabout on Pakistan's nuclear weapons say that it demonstrates Bush administration hypocrisy. On the one hand, the administration claims to support democracy and oppose one-man rule and nuclear proliferation. On the other, it supports a general who seized power in a military coup in 1999 and whose country has not ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
In little more than one year after 9/11, the U.S. turned its attention from Afghanistan and al Qaeda to Iraq and its nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and nonexistent nuclear weapons program.

But while Iraq had no nuclear weapons, Pakistan did. Iraq was not a nuclear proliferator, spreading nuclear technology to other countries—but Pakistan was. (Pakistan's chief scientist, A.Q. Khan, sold nuclear materials to such countries as North Korea, Libya and Iran.) And Iraq was not a magnet for terrorists until the U.S. invasion—but Pakistan was. As Jonathan Schell wrote, "Pakistan was by far the more dangerous country."

For discussion

1. What questions do you have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why were Pakistan's leaders given a U.S. ultimatum on 9/11? Why do you suppose that General Musharraf decided to ally Pakistan with the U.S.?

3. Why do you suppose that Pakistan has been unable to eliminate the refuges various jihadist groups have established in the country?

4. What support does Pakistan give the U.S.? What support does the U.S. give Pakistan?

5. What are major provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty? If you don't know, how might you find out?

6. How would you explain the U.S. shift in its anti-terrorist policy from Afghanistan to Iraq? What do you understand the consequences to have been? If you have difficulty with these questions, how might you find out find answers?

7. Why does Jonathan Schell regard Pakistan as "by far the more dangerous country" than Iraq?


Student Reading 2:

A "dangerous country"

In 1947, the Indian subcontinent broke free from Great Britain after about a century of colonial domination. In a religion-based bloodbath, it also broke into two countries, mostly Hindu India and mostly Sunni Muslim Pakistan. Millions fled their homes and crossed the border in both directions. In the violence, hundreds of thousands were killed. Twenty-five years later the eastern section of Pakistan broke away to form Bangladesh.

Pakistan, a nation of 165 million people, borders the Arabian Sea. To its east lies India; to its west and north are Iran and Afghanistan; and to its northeast is China.

Pakistan's 60-year history as a nation has been scarred with corruption, chaos, and struggles between civilian and military authority. It has also been marked by a sometimes violent conflict between Sunni fundamentalists and minority Shiites.

The CIA and Saudi Arabia used Pakistan as a conduit to supply several billion dollars of aid for guerrilla warriors, the mujahedeen, in Afghanistan during their fight against the Soviets (1979-1989). Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) also supported the mujahadeen. ISI also supported jihadist groups opposed to India's rule in Kashmir, a territory bordering the two nations and claimed by both. Pakistan and India fought three wars over Kashmir. (Although the conflict remains unresolved, tensions have since been reduced now that both India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons.)

After the mujahadeen forced the Soviet Union to give up control of Afghanistan, civil war broke out among Afghan factions, and U.S. leaders lost interest in the country. The Taliban then came to power. Osama bin Laden was one of the mujahadeen who had been supported with money, weapons and intelligence by President Ronald Reagan during the 1980s. Reagan had called the mujahadeen "freedom fighters" against Soviet oppression.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Pakistan in 1999, General Musharraf led a military coup that overthrew the democratically elected civilian government of Nawar Sharif — the fifth coup in Pakistan's history. Apparently the general and the ISI feared that Clinton administration pressure on the Sharif government would halt the aid Pakistan had been providing to the Taliban. Pakistan's alliance with the Taliban had kept Pakistan's western border secure—thus freeing the Pakistani military for the struggle with India. ("The Defense Monitor," Center for Defense Information, January/February 2008)

Musharraf's alliance with the U.S. after 9/11 meant that he now had to try to root out Taliban forces in Pakistan. But he also had to try to satisfy Taliban sympathizers in his own military and intelligence services.

After the Taliban had emerged as victors in Afghanistan, Bin Laden had returned to the country, with Taliban support. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan following 9/11, he and many of his supporters, as well as some Taliban leaders and fighters, escaped.

With U.S. attention focused on Iraq, the Taliban, al Qaeda and other jihadists began rebuilding their forces in Pakistan's western mountainous frontier and tribal areas, where the government had little control. During the past year, there have been jihadist attacks on Pakistani military facilities. A suicide bomber killed eight members of the Pakistani air force and wounded forty others at the home of Pakistan's Air Force Central Command and the military headquarters for control of its nuclear arsenal.

A few weeks later a suicide bomber attacked a busload of Pakistani children of air force officers at a base that includes facilities probably used for storage and maintenance of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. (Joseph Cirincione, "The Greatest Threat to Us All," New York Review, 3/6/08)

Despite Pakistan's alliance with the U.S., reports persist of ISI's continuing support for the Taliban. The Taliban have made a significant comeback in southern Afghanistan, despite the presence of U.S. and other NATO soldiers. According to Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, the Taliban now control 10 to 11 percent of Afghanistan. (Testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, 2/27/08)

In his article in the New York Review , Joseph Cirincione cites Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark's report ("Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons"): "Pakistan continues to sell nuclear weapons technology (to clients known and unknown) even as Musharraf denies it—which means either that the sales are being carried out with Musharraf's secret blessing, or that he did not know and is in no more control of his country's nuclear weapons program than he is of the bands of jihadis in the tribal belt and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, which have merged with al Qaeda."

On January 29, a U.S. Predator (a pilotless plane) fired two Hellfire missiles at the Pakistani town of Mir Ali, reportedly killing a senior al Qaeda commander and as many as 13 others. A local informant had given the U.S. intelligence information about his whereabouts. Officially, the Musharraf government objects to strikes like the one at Mir Ali, but privately gives them the go-ahead.

"Even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then," a senior American official said. "But overall, we're in worse shape than we were 18 months ago." (, 2/19/08)

For discussion

1. What questions do you have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why has Afghanistan been regarded as important to Pakistan's leaders?

3. What are the links between the Taliban, Pakistan and Osama bin Laden?

4. What evidence is there that Pakistan's government does not have control over portions of its own country?

5. What nuclear weapons security problems make Pakistan dangerous?


Student Reading 3:

A changing country

General Musharraf faced snowballing problems during 2007. They included opposition to his power from the country's Supreme Court, political parties, and Muslim fundamentalists. On November 3, 2007, General Musharraf declared a state of emergency. He suspended the country's Constitution; placed the head of the Supreme Court under house arrest, arrested the judges and replaced them with yes-men; and shut down private TV news channels. Lawyers and human rights advocates flooded the streets to protest these actions.

Pakistan is changing. Decades of corruption, inefficiency, military coups and political conflict had contributed to the miserable poverty of many Pakistanis. But in recent years economic development aided by international agencies has helped to reduce poverty and stimulated the growth of a middle class whose presence was felt in the demonstrations against the general.

Musharraf ordered baton-wielding police into the streets of Islamabad, the capital, and had hundreds of his political opponents arrested. The general said he was acting to prevent terrorist attacks on public and military facilities and to "preserve the democratic transition that I initiated eight years back."

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, said the only emergency was the general's understanding that his hold on power had been seriously weakened. Though the U.S. continued to support the general, it was also critical. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insisted upon "a quick return to constitutional law."

Most of President Musharraf's remaining popularity disappeared. He was forced to give up leadership of the army. Demonstrators demanded new parliamentary elections, especially after Bhutto's assassination on December 27. Many Pakistanis blamed the general for her death, charging either that he ordered it or at least that his government failed to provide her with adequate security.

In parliamentary elections on February 18, voters overwhelming rejected Musharraf. His party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, retained only 40 of 272 parliamentary seats. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), led by Bhutto's widowed husband Asif Ali Zardari, won the most seats. Second was the Pakistan Muslim League-N led by former prime minister Nawar Sharif. The two parties formed a coalition that commands a parliamentary majority. Both of these parties support more secular, liberal policies than Musharraf's.

Major questions remain:

1) Will the two parties now establish a civilian government based on parliamentary democracy and constitutional rule? Graham Usher writes in The Nation (3/10/08) that this "would clearly mean the ousting of Musharraf, since none of those ideas are compatible with the authoritarian presidential system he has minted."

2) What will Pakistan's army do under the new leadership of Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who says he wants the army out of politics? The military allowed a relatively fair election. But its power, writes Usher, is immense. "It's worth $20 billion in assets and controls a third of all manufacturing....The idea that such an institution would voluntarily give up these interests is imaginary, especially when its hegemony is underwritten by billions in U.S. aid."

U.S. officials are hoping for a power-sharing deal with Musharraf. President Bush said, "We look forward to working with whoever emerges as prime minister; we look forward to working with President Musharraf in his new role."

But Sharif does not want the repudiated president to have a significant role in the new government. He also calls for using a different approach than force in Pakistan's tribal areas. "Britain solved the Northern Ireland issue with dialogue," he said. Zardari is also against a partnership with Musharraf or his party. "I do not believe the pro-Musharraf forces exist," he said.

A leader of the anti-Musharraf lawyers movement, Aitzaz Ahsan, told a U.S. consul general that the United States was making a mistake in continuing to support Musharraf. "The guy is history, please don't prop him up," he said. Ahsan said the U.S. should ask Musharraf to resign. (New York Times, 2/22/08 and 2/26/08)

Ahsan's view is widespread in Pakistan. An editorial in an English-language Pakistani newspaper, The News , was headlined "Hands Off, Please!" It declared, "No further efforts must be made to intervene in the democratic process in Pakistan. The man who the U.S. continues to back has in many ways become a central part of Pakistan's problems." (2/22/08) But Dana Perino, the White House spokeswoman, said President Bush continued to support Musharraf because of "all of the work he's done to help us in counterterrorism."

Most Pakistanis have resented unwavering American support for President Musharraf. Only 16 percent of Pakistanis currently have a favorable view of U.S. ( New York Times , 2/22/07)

Senator Joe Biden (D, DEL) wrote that the election "gives the United States an opportunity to move from a Musharraf policy to a Pakistan policy. To demonstrate to its people that we care about their needs, not just our own, we must triple assistance for schools, roads and clinics...and demand accountability for the military aid we provide." ( New York Times , 3/2/08)

Note: These readings have also made use of Steve Coll's reporting in "Letter from Pakistan: Time Bomb," The New Yorker, 1/28/08


For discussion

1. What questions do you have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What seem to be some of the reasons for General Musharraf's weakened power?

3. Why do the general's weakened role and recent election results represent a problem for the Bush administration?

4. What major issues face the new Pakistani government?

5. Why do you suppose that Pakistani views of the United States have become so negative?

6. Why do you suppose the Bush administration continues to support President Musharraf?


For inquiry

A suggested inquiry approach on such subjects as those listed below might call for independent or small group investigations. Students might begin by formulating a question that is then refined by students and the teacher. See "Thinking Is Questioning" for ways to involve students in question-asking and question-analyzing activities.

Students might investigate:

1. The violent origins of Pakistan
2. One of Pakistan's ethnic groups
3. Pakistan's support for the Taliban
4. Pakistan's madrasas
5. Pakistan's efforts to curb or eliminate al Qaeda
6. Pakistan's nuclear weapons
7. The mujahadeen and their fight to oust the USSR from Afghanistan
8. The conflict over Kashmir
9. Osama bin Laden's escape from American troops in Afghanistan
10. A.Q. Khan, nuclear salesman
11. Benazir Bhutto
12. Nawar Sharif
13. Asif Ali Zardari


Th is lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: