Pakistan’s foreign policy: US-Pakistan relations during cold war

saddam hussain samo
Saddam Hussain Samo on Pakistan’s foreign policy: US-Pakistan relations during cold war

The geo-strategic location of newly independent Pakistan became a source of attraction for the US. Pakistan turned out to be the only country that could stop the spread of communism in Middle East and Persian Gulf. The US also realized its importance and desired to use it as a tool against the Soviet Union. Pakistani leaders, on the other hand, also wished to exploit their location to build their defense against Indian aggression and Afghanistan. As a result, Pakistan changed its foreign policy of neutrality towards the warring powers and decided to align with the US.

Some writers believe that the alignment phase of Pakistan towards the US began in 1950 when the first Prime Minister of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan, chose to visit the US instead of Soviet Union, despite receiving the invitation from the both states. Although, the president Truman received him along with his wife, yet the US was reluctant to provide military aid to Pakistan because it knew that it would annoy India. For instance, when the Korean war started, PM Liaquat Ali Khan told Ambassador Avra Warren that if the United States needs Pakistan’s help, it should reciprocate by helping Pakistan in its dispute over Kashmir and Afghanistan.1 The US refused to support Pakistan on Kashmir and Pashtun issue in exchange for its contribution in the Korean war. The US did not want to involve in India-Pakistan rivalry, but it was also annoyed by Indian refusal to not help the West against the Communism.

Pakistan had no issue from communism, but Indian aggression and Pashtun problem. Its leaders wanted to use their blessed geo-strategic location and issue of communism to build their defense system with the blessing of America. They also developed high expectations from the US. For instances, Bourke White, a reporter of life magazine wrote that government officials would say to her: “Surely America will build our army. Surely America will give us loans to keep Russia from walking in.”

The US wanted to adopt a balance approach towards India and Pakistan. If it built the defense of Pakistan against communism, India would drift towards the Soviet. India was the largest democracy and the US could not afford to alienate her. When the US started to support both countries, Pakistan protested because of two main reasons: first, it feared that American military aid would increase Indian aggression towards Pakistan. Second, Pakistan took risk by openly aligning with the US against Soviet, while India remained neutral. Hence, its leaders wished to be preferred by the US in providing the weapons. The US had no option, but to adopt the balance approach that finally led to the deterioration of US-Pakistan relations in the long run during the cold war.

After considering the advices of different experts, the US decided to proceed with the military aid to Pakistan to contain the influence of communism. The actual alignment phase began in 1954 when Pakistan signed a Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement with the US. Under the agreement, the US would provide defense equipment and other services to be used by Pakistan only for self-defense, maintaining its internal security and in the UN collective security missions. Pakistan agreed that it would not undertake any act of aggression against any other nation. Pakistan’s relations with India, Afghanistan and the Soviet deteriorated after this agreement. The US announced only $29.5 million military aid for Pakistan in 1954, which was below its expectation. Pakistan was not happy with this figure. To prevent India from drifting to the Soviet, Dwight D Eisenhower, president of the US, wrote a letter to Nehru assuring him that the arms given by the US to Pakistan would not be used for aggression and offering to supply arms to India as well.2

In 1954, Pakistan also became a part of South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO).  Although, it was a treaty to prevent the spread of communism in the South East Asia countries like Cambodia, Vietnam and so on, Pakistan was made a part to honor its alignment with the US and provide assistance.

As expected, Nehru visited to Soviet Union in June 1955 after the US had supplied military aid to Pakistan. The soviet leaders also visited India Afghanistan and Burma, all neighbors of Pakistan, in the same year to put pressure on America and Pakistan. It was now clear that Pakistan had made the Soviet as its bitter enemy by turning towards the US.

Under these circumstances, the US adopted the balance policy towards India and Pakistan. It also unleashed military aids to India and assured Pakistan that India would only use American weapons against communism. This policy of America became problematic for Pakistan. In 1959, Pakistan gave a Badaber base, 10 miles from Peshawar near Afghan border, to the US air force as a communication facility, for 10 years lease. The base was meant to spy over the activities of the soviet by interpreting its communication. Besides, the US also flew U-2 spy planes from Peshawar airbase to collect intelligence information. In May 1, 1960, the Soviet shot down the plane that made Pakistan vulnerable to the Soviet’s retaliation.

The relations between the US and Pakistan deteriorated when John F Kennedy became the president of America in 1961. He was of the view that India was more important country in Asia. If it fails, the balance of power will shift against the US. As a result, he provided $1 billion aid to India in his first budget. Pakistan responded quickly by improving its ties with china. It engaged in negotiation with Beijing on 12th October 1962 to settle its border issue. To please Beijing, Islamabad gave a part of Kashmir to china. It also established air link with China against the wishes of the US. Pakistan’s tilt towards China was seen with suspicious in America.

The Sino-India war of 1962 further upset the balance between the US-Pakistan relations. The US supplied India weapons without consulting Pakistan. To appease Islamabad, Kennedy assured Ayub that the weapons, provided to India, would be used only against China and the US will come to Pakistan’s assistance in the event of aggression from India against Pakistan.3 However, the act of supplying sophisticated weapons to India by the US raised eye brows in Pakistan because it knew that India would use the same weapons against it during crisis.

Besides, the relations between the US and Pakistan reached the lowest ebb in 1963 when Lyndon Johnson succeeded John F Kennedy. He reacted angrily on Pakistan over its increasing friendly relations with China. The relations received last blow during indo-Pak war of 1965. The US was astonished to see the weapons given by it to India and Pakistan to fight communism were used by them against each other. As a result, the US suspended its cooperation with both countries. Pakistan was termed as aggressive. When Ayub visited America in December 1965, Johnson told him that the alliance between Pakistan and the US was over.

As a result, Pakistan started to drift towards China and the Soviet. Johnson administrations stopped military aid to Pakistan after the war. China came to fill the gap. It provided Pakistan $60 million for development in 1965. Besides, China started to build industrial plants in Pakistan to improve its defense against India like the Heavy Mechanical Complex, Kamra Aeronautical complex and so on. It also started to construct Karakaram highway to connect the countries with road link in 1966.

The relations between the US and Pakistan started to improve when the Richard Nixon became the president of the US in December 1969. He followed the policy of reducing tensions with China knowing the fact that it had developed hostility towards the Soviet. Knowing Pakistan close relations with China, Nixon asked General Yahiya to arrange a secret meeting of his National Security advisor, Henry Kissinger, to China. Pakistan successfully arranged the meeting, but when the news reached the Soviet’s leaders, they turned hostile towards Pakistan and decided to punish her. Consequently, the Soviet Union signed a treaty with India and assured her full protection incase of attack from any country. The agreement made India over confidant and it directly involved in East Pakistan crisis to disintegrate Pakistan. New Delhi was sure the China would not involve in the conflict owing to the Soviet’s support. To protect the West Pakistan from Indian attack, Nixon dispatched military ships to Bay of Bengal. It was the first time the US directly involved to protect Pakistan from Indian aggression.

The new elections in Pakistan brought Zulifqar Ali Bhutto as the president of Pakistan in 1971. He was considered as an anti-Western leader in the US because of his early policies to maintain good friendly relations with China and the Soviet and desire to make a bomb. He was the advisor of Ayub who asked him to increase alliance with China. By the time Bhutto formed the government, there was an urgent need to build the military, particularly, after the defeat of 1971. Realizing the importance of good relations with the US for the economic and military aid, Bhutto tried to improve its relations with America. First he tried to declare himself as pro-American. For instance, he told acting Mission Chief Sidney Sober, “I am not anti-American.”4

In 1972, Pakistan offered the United States naval bases along the Baluchistan coast in return for rearming the Pakistani forces.5 The offer was declined and the US had decided not to build Pakistan’s military equal to India with American support after 1971 war. Thus, the US-Pakistan relations during Bhutto remained abysmal. According to the USAID figure, from 1972 to 1977, Bhutto received $937.3 million in economic assistance. The US military aid during this period was only $1.7 million.

One reason that the US did not help Bhutto was his passion to make a bomb. He did not keep it secret. He said at one occasion, “There is Christian Bomb, a Jewish Bomb and a Hindu Bomb, There must be an Islamic Bomb!” In order to receive economic assistance, he drifted towards Muslims countries and tried to gain maximum benefits from global oil crisis and rise of petrol price that filled the reserves of Saudi Arabia. He exported labors to the gulf countries and provided them military training for cash. Pakistani pilots also helped gulf countries in training to fly planes. It is, therefore, said that Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) built Emirates.

The relations reached at the lowest ebb when Pakistan signed an agreement with France in 1976 for supply of plutonium-based nuclear reprocessing plant. In a short span of time, France under pressured by the various countries, cancelled the project with Pakistan. Thus, the US-Pakistan relations during Bhutto remained poor. The US, once again, made Pakistan an important ally during Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. During this period, it supported Pakistan economically and military without fear of Indian reaction and Pakistan’s active nuclear program.

List of References:

  1. Husain Haqqani, Magnificent Delusion, p.52
  2. Abdul Sattar, Pakistan’s foreign policy 1947-2016, p.66.
  3. Kennedy letter of 28 October 1962 to Ayub.
  4. F.S. Aijazuddin, The White House and Pakistan, p.125.
  5. Telegram dated 17 February 1972 from Islamabad US embassy to the State department. 


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