The recent exchange of words of dissatisfaction and annoyance between the US and Pakistan leaderships indicates that the fragile transactional nature of these countries’ bilateral relations has touched a new low.

US-Pakistani relations keep fluctuating as they lack deep engagements as regards political values, economic interests and world-views. Recently, after US President Donald Trump accused Pakistan of receiving American handouts while failing to provide timely intelligence as regards the hideout of the late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan retorted: “Trump’s false assertions add insult to the injury Pakistan has suffered in US war on terror in terms of lives lost and destabilized and economic costs.”

Pakistan has summoned a high-ranking US envoy to lodge a protest against Trump’s “unwarranted and unsubstantiated” criticism of Islamabad’s role in the US-led “war on terror.”

The evolving US-Pakistani relations can be understood from a historical perspective. In the American perception, Pakistan’s role was to serve the geopolitical imperative of expanding US influence into the large expanse of the Eurasian landmass and resource-rich Central Asian region while at the same time containing the sway of adversarial states (such as the Soviet Union during the Cold War and Iran and Russia later) and non-state actors (radical groups practicing terror).

As a result, Pakistan not only received massive US aid when its geopolitical necessity became imminent, but relations between the two immediately took a nosedive when Islamabad was perceived unable to serve US geopolitical imperatives.

Politics of containment

In its drive to contain Soviet influence, the US sought an alliance with Pakistan, which became a member of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1954 even though it is not a Southeast Asian country, and thus became a recipient of massive US aid. However, to Pakistan’s dismay, when it fought a war with India in 1965, the US administration of Lyndon Johnson, perhaps moved by the belief that most of the US military aid provided to contain communism had instead been diverted to build up Pakistan’s armed forces for war against India, suspended such assistance.

At the beginning of the 1970s, Pakistan facilitated lines of communication between the US and China and thereby became a favorite of the Richard Nixon administration. In support of Pakistan, the US moved its Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal during 1971 Indo-Pakistani war waged on the question of determining East Pakistan’s future. Notwithstanding the US administration’s continued support for the Pakistan Army’s attempt to subdue East Pakistan’s independence struggle, Washington eventually withdrew its military support during the last stage of the war.

The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 brought Pakistani and American interests into close alignment. Not only did Pakistan play a vital role in spawning insurgency against the Soviet occupation, it became the conduit for enormous US aid to channelequip and sustain insurgency militarily and financially. However, once the Soviets were out of Afghanistan, Pakistan became subject to US sanctions for its covert nuclear ambitions.

In 1998, the US slapped sanctions on both India and Pakistan for their nuclear tests. One year later, in 1999, the Bill Clinton administration forcefully intervened to pressure Pakistan to withdraw its forces sent across the Line of Control in Kashmir near the town of Kargil. In the same year, Pakistan was subject to further US sanctions following the removal of a democratically elected government by the army chief Pervez Musharraf through a military coup.

Later on, perhaps in recognition of India’s growing economic and military clout and usefulness in containing Chinese influence, the US de-hyphenated its Indo-Pakistani relationship by making it clear that while it was keen on having a good relationship with Pakistan, India would be treated in its own right and not in reference to US ties with Pakistan.

The ‘war on terror’

Once Pakistan joined the US-led “war on terror” after the attacks of September 11, 2001, its geo-strategic location allowed it a bigger role in Afghanistan. Not only did it provide supply routes for US and NATO convoys, the US relied heavily on intelligence inputs from Pakistan to curb militancy in Afghanistan.

But even while US-Pakistani relations were marked by enhanced partnership, things were certainly not smooth sailing. Meanwhile, fissures in intelligence communications between the two countries surfaced after Osama bin Laden was located and killed in his hideout in Abbottabad in 2011 and allegations were made of connections between the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency and al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba.

However, bilateral relations continued with sporadic hiccups as Washington’s dependence on Islamabad was crucial either to prosecute its war against terrorism or to forge political reconciliation with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The US under president Barack Obama followed an Afghanistan policy that focused on al-Qaeda as its target and at the same time called for substantial military and economic aid to Islamabad. The Obama administration reduced the number of American troops, stressing a timeline for US troops’ withdrawal and pushing for an exit strategy based on political reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban, which made dependence on Pakistan even more important.

It was toward the concluding phase of the Obama administration that some of the earlier strategies were reversed. The troop-withdrawal strategy was given a pause, and the policy of lavishing aid to Pakistan was rolled back. For instance, US assistance to Pakistan was scaled down from $2.177 billion in 2014 to $1.118 billion in 2016. The US Congress refused to subsidize the sale of eight F-16 fighter aircraft in 2016 that the administration had committed itself to earlier.

At one point, there were even efforts in the US Congress to introduce a bill designating Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism. The Obama administration’s stringent behavior toward Pakistan toward the end of its term perhaps stemmed from Pakistan’s alleged support for the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network.

The end of ambiguity

The Trump administration, from the beginning, was categorical about the alleged role of Pakistan in sponsoring terrorism and therefore came out with unambiguous expressions of deep concern and criticism after the release of the alleged mastermind of the Mumbai terrorist attack Hafiz Saeed from house arrest by Pakistan. The US not only withheld military assistance to Pakistan, it clearly expressed its desire to cast India in a more prominent role in its policy concerning the South Asian and Indo-Pacific regions.

The Trump administration decided to begin where Obama left off on the Afghanistan issue. It preferred to adopt a coercive strategy toward Pakistan from the beginning by suspending military aid pending conditions that Pakistan must show commitment to fighting terrorism.

It believed in a coercive strategy to ensure Pakistan’s compliance with US war aims in Afghanistan and undercut its alleged support for the Taliban and the Haqqani network. The administration also authorized an increase in the number of US troops in Afghanistan and resumed drone strikes, indicating distrust of Pakistan’s sincerity in taking on terrorism.

US-Pakistani relations could have been more stable had they been more integrated in political and economic dimensions. The transactional nature of relations is bound to unravel and is subject to constant flux, as has been witnessed recently.