Americans and Pakistanis look at their bilateral relations through disparate lenses. They focus on different events and accentuate different benefits and grievances. For Pakistanis, the decision by the United States to impose sanctions on their country after it tested a nuclear weapon in 1998 was a sign of America’s unreliability as an ally. This was seen as a repeat of early 1990s U.S. sanctions against Pakistan after U.S. interests in Afghanistan were served. The removal of the 1998 sanctions after September 11, 2001, when the United States named Pakistan as a “major non-NATO ally” in its war on terrorism, was seen by many Pakistanis as the product of a deal brokered with a military leader, General Pervez Musharraf, rather than an alliance between the two nations. U.S. military action against the Taliban in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas has caused deep unease within the Pakistani military and among the public; one common complaint is that Pakistan has given in to pressure to fight fellow Muslims on behalf of the United States. Pakistanis know that their military benefits from more than $1 billion in U.S. aid (part of which represented reimbursements for logistical support) every year, but they do not see benefits to their society. Additionally, almost all Pakistanis see U.S. objections to their country’s nuclear weapons program as discriminatory.

By contrast, American policymakers see Pakistan as the unreliable recipient of U.S. funds to fight terrorism; Pakistanis, in their view, have been weak-kneed in carrying out counter-terrorism objectives. They question why Pakistan has not been able to defeat the Taliban within its borders or to deliver up the United States’ nemesis, Osama bin Laden, who is alleged to have found sanctuary in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Increasingly, American officials have suggested to reporters that Pakistan is playing a “double game,” maintaining operational ties to the Taliban and other armed Islamist groups while intermittently cooperating with the United States against them.

American popularity briefly rose after the 2005 earthquake when the U.S. government provided humanitarian aid to Pakistan, but it sunk soon afterwards, to as low as 15 percent according to a 2007 Pew poll. Until only a few months before his forced resignation on August 18, 2008, Washington vocally supported General Pervez Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless military coup d’état in 1999, as the guarantor of our interests in Pakistan, despite his declining approval ratings among most Pakistanis. The previous year, U.S. officials and diplomats had remained silent about Musharraf’s dismissal and detention of the chief justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court and some 60 other appeals court justices, putting us on the wrong side of an issue that galvanized Pakistani opposition to his government.

Our “one-stop shopping” relationship with Musharraf — relying on him as the representative of both the military and the ostensibly civilian government — proved to be damaging. It failed to further our nuclear non-proliferation and anti-terrorism goals, and it alienated many Pakistani leaders, including moderate, secular democrats. Such a personalized relationship should not be replicated with Pakistan’s new president, Asif Ali Zardari. Instead, the aid program envisioned in the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act should be an instrument for the United States to build broad ties with Pakistani society.2

As Pakistan emerges from a new round of elections, and attempts to shift the balance of state authority from the military to an elected civilian government, the United States needs a new paradigm for its relations with this geopolitically important ally — one that can simultaneously promote democracy, counter-terrorism, and non-proliferation while taking immediate steps to help Pakistan achieve stability and prosperity. Economic support for Pakistan is a prerequisite for strengthening the state against Islamist extremism.

Important forces in Pakistan recognize the issues the country faces, and in recent years non-governmental organizations have begun to confront these challenges. They have also contributed to an expansion of the intellectual resources available to analyze Pakistan’s problems. Many of the forces that have emerged in civil society oppose Islamist violence and want to address corruption and military influence in their society and strengthen the rule of law. Broadly speaking, they supported the election, in February 2008, of a coalition civilian government. (That coalition has now begun to fracture.) The United States needs to ally itself with these civil society forces.

There is new urgency to these goals: Pakistan’s economic crisis threatens to unleash civil unrest and to undermine the newly elected government; relations with India are at a low ebb and a confrontation there could draw the Pakistani army away from the fight against the Taliban; and unilateral military action by the United States within Pakistan’s borders threatens to turn the public and the army against Pakistan’s civilian government, which is widely believed to have privately consented to U.S. air strikes and commando raids in the tribal areas. The resulting instability could derail Pakistan’s battle against Islamist extremists. Again, vital American interests are at stake here, and not only because of our fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. If Pakistan itself turned against the West, it could well become a menace that would dwarf all other regional threats. Terrorist attacks in Pakistan have escalated recently, most dramatically with the September 20th bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. Pakistan has stepped up military operations against armed Islamists in Bajaur Agency, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and in the Swat district of NWFP; at the same time, the United States has staged air strikes (using drones) and at least one incursion in Waziristan, which has heightened tensions between Washington and Islamabad, with reports that Pakistani troops have fired on U.S. helicopters to keep them from entering their nation’s airspace. The stepped-up U.S. military activity has aroused vehement opposition among much of the Pakistani public. It is not yet clear whether the United States and Pakistan will be able to resolve these bilateral tensions and succeed militarily against al-Qaeda and allied groups in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, but, if they do, and if military gains are to be sustained on the ground, economic and reconstruction aid will be all the more necessary.

In order to formulate an effective, sustainable foreign policy toward Pakistan, Americans need information on what Pakistanis think, believe, and feel about their own society, and about what they see as their place in the international system. This report is an attempt to outline, drawing on recent on-the-ground interviews and discussions, how Pakistanis view U.S.-Pakistan relations and what their aims and goals are, both as individuals and for their country.

Previous: Executive Summary

Next: Opposition to U.S. Policy


2 For political history, see Stephen P. Cohen, The Idea of Pakistan (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2004). For the Pew poll, see Richard Wike, “Karen Hughes’ Uphill Battle: Foreign Policy, Not Public Diplomacy, Mostly Determines How the World Views America,”

Subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest scoop right to your inbox.
Loading ...