For more than half a century, Pakistan and the United States have found themselves partners in common crises. The U.S.-Pakistani alliance is strange, however, because both sides maintain fundamentally different and often mutually exclusive understandings of their national interests. While the United States has grown increasingly suspicious of Islamist movements, Pakistan’s ethnic diversity and a history of separatist movements have forced Pakistan to consider these movements the greater threat. Wars in Afghanistan have escalated the bilateral tension surrounding the differing threat perceptions and increased mutual distrust not only between governments, but on the popular level as well. Because Pakistan and the United States diverge so greatly on issues of national security, there is no possible compromise between the two in Afghanistan. This will lead the conflict between Pakistan and the United States to isolate until one side or the other wins its proxy war in Afghanistan.
Excerpt from chapter, “When Realities Collide: Differing U.S.-Pakistan Threat Perceptions” by Michael Rubin
The diplomatic relationship between Pakistan and the United States is like no other: Seldom have two countries with such divergent interests, threat perceptions, and goals found themselves thrown together repeatedly in alliance. For the first decades of Pakistan‘s existence, for instance, the U.S. government saw their South Asian ally only through a Cold War lens. Successive U.S. administrations demanded Pakistani assistance against the Soviet Union, the chief U.S. security concern, but dismissed Pakistan‘s own concerns about India.
Likewise, U.S. and Pakistani leaders came to different assessments about the role of religion. Pakistan was founded upon a religious rather than ethnic identity. Even before the massive transfer of population that accompanied partition, Pakistan was remarkably diverse: Punjabis, Pashtun, Sindhis, and Baloch in West Pakistan, and Bengalis in East Pakistan. Whereas U.S. policymakers and intelligence analysts viewed political Islam with suspicion as early as 1946, Pakistani authorities saw political Islamist movements as less threatening to the Pakistani state than ethnic separatist and regional movements.
Because of these different threat perceptions, Washington‘s relationship with the Pakistani government is marked by a distrust more often reserved for rogue regimes than for allies and partners. The average Pakistani‘s attitude toward both the United States and Americans is little better. The gap between public attitudes and official policies exacerbates both Anti-Americanism in Pakistan and the suspicion with which U.S. society views Pakistan. As the war in Afghanistan continues and further exposes a fundamental divergence in interest, the relationship between the United States and Pakistan will only worsen.
This chapter is featured in Usama Butt and Julian Schofield, Pakistan: The U.S., Geopolitics, and Grand Strategies. (London: Pluto Press, 2012)