Pakistan in America’s War against Terrorism: Strategic Ally or Unreliable Client?

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The September 11 attacks on New York andWashington and the ensuing U.S.-led war on terrorismhave given Pakistan's military dictator,Gen. Pervez Musharraf, an opportunity toimprove the relationship between Washingtonand Islamabad. That relationship had experienceda steep decline in the 1990s, as the end of both theCold War and the common struggle against theSoviet occupation of Afghanistan eroded the perceptionof shared strategic interests. Moreover,while it was losing its strategic significance to theUnited States, Pakistan was coming under thecontrol of an assertive military-religious nexusthat promoted anti-American radical Islamicforces at home and abroad.

Since September 11, General Musharraf,whose regime had been the main source of diplomaticand military support for the terroristTaliban ruling neighboring Afghanistan, has portrayedhis regime as an ally of Washington in itscounterterrorism campaign. Musharraf, though,headed a military clique that brought an end tohis nation's short democratic experience, assistedradical Islamic terrorist groups in Afghanistanand Kashmir, pressed for a war with India,advanced Pakistan's nuclear weapons program,and presided over a corrupt and mismanagedeconomy. Despite that record, he is being hailedby the Bush administration as a "courageous" and"visionary" leader who is ready to reorient hiscountry toward a pro-American position andadopt major political and economic reforms. Inexchange for his belated support, Musharraf hasbeen rewarded with U.S. diplomatic backing andsubstantial economic aid.

Musharraf's decision to join the U.S. war on terrorismdidn't reflect a structural transformation inPakistan's policy. It was a result of tactical considerationsaimed at limiting the losses that Islamabadwould suffer because of the collapse of the friendlyTaliban regime in Kabul. Rejecting cooperationwith Washington would have provoked Americanwrath and placed at risk Pakistan's strategic andeconomic interests in South Asia.

Some cooperation between the United Statesand Pakistan is necessary to wage the war againstterrorism, but that cooperation must not evolveinto a new long-term strategic alliance.Washington should view Pakistan, with its dictatorship,failed economy, and insecure nuclear arsenal,as a reluctant supporter of U.S. goals at bestand as a potential long-term problem at worst.

Leon T. Hadar

Leon T. Hadar is a research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and the author of Quagmire: America in the Middle East.