Before they died in a suspicious plane crash on August 16, President/General Zia ul-Haq and his officer cohorts were looking with dismay at the prospect of a new administration in Washington. Pakistan forged the closest ties ever with the United States during the eight years of Ronald Reagan’s administration. The Soviet military presence in Afghanistan virtually guaranteed Reagan’s blind eye to Islamabad’s nuclear program. Increased military aid and closer intelligence ties boosted the Pakistani military’s dominant political role in the country.

With the Afghanistan conflict winding down, whoever comes into the White House will look much more closely at Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions and will come under pressure to cut military and economic aid to Islamabad at a time of growing economic strains there. The war in Afghanistan has provided a political shield for General Zia during eight long years of martial law (1977-85) and the subsequent period of restricted civilian government. The Reagan administration had tunneled more than $2 billion to the Afghan mujahidin since 1980 and that was matched by another $2 billion by Saudi Arabia, China and the Gulf states. [1]

Some US experts allege that part of this aid has been used by the Pakistan military to build up the military Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The ISI has expanded from an intelligence agency that was only concerned with watching the military to what is now the most powerful political force in the country. In May, the ISI demanded the dismissal of the government of Prime Minister Muhammad Junejo; Zia complied on May 29. [2]

In what has been an unprecedented relationship with a Third World intelligence agency, Washington has allowed the ISI to run the Afghan operation — distribute the financial aid and weapons, provide political direction to the Afghan guerrillas and plan their war strategy. This allowed Pakistan and the US “plausible deniability” about arming the guerrillas until 1986, when Washington publicly introduced Stinger missiles into the battlefield. The CIA insisted on direct distribution and accountability for the Stingers. Nevertheless, the worst fears of the US Congress were realized when Stingers were sold to the Iranians by Afghan guerrillas. [3] Subsequently more Stingers have emerged in Qatar. [4] There has also been intense intelligence collaboration between the US and Pakistan since the Afghan conflict began.

The UN-mediated Geneva talks which began on March 2 exposed a growing split between US and Pakistani policy on Afghanistan. While the US wanted the Soviets out at any cost so that it could claim a victory for President Reagan’s policy of “rolling back communism,” Zia placed more emphasis on ensuring a government in Kabul that would be thoroughly pro-Pakistan and enable the Afghan refugees to return home. Zia stalled signing until more concessions were obtained from the Soviets. In doing so he both angered his civilian government and frustrated Washington. The Reagan administration finally persuaded Pakistan to sign the Geneva accords on April 14 with a vague agreement on symmetry — US arms supplies to the mujahidin would not cease until Soviet aid to the Kabul regime also stopped. In the following weeks, the US and more importantly, President Zia, continued arming the fundamentalist wing of the mujahidin, especially Hizb-e Islami led by Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, who was his favorite choice as the future head of Afghanistan.

When the mujahidin failed to capture important Afghan cities as they had promised to do by July, the Afghan war drifted into a stalemate. Neither Afghani President Najibullah nor the guerrillas were able to deliver a coup de grace. US intelligence assessments that Kabul would fall within six weeks of the start of the Soviet withdrawal were quickly upgraded to a year or more. [5]

Divisions within the mujahidin, especially bloody fighting between Hizb-e Islami and all the other groups, contributed to tensions between Islamabad and Washington. [6] By the end of June it appeared that some officials in Washington were regretting the fact that they had given Pakistan such a free hand in determining Afghan policy.

The alternative offered by Moscow — the option of a coalition government comprising the moderate guerrilla groups, field commanders, the ruling People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) and ex-King Zahir Shah — continued to remain one possibility. UN mediator Diego Cordovez has proposed a cease-fire plan and a loya jirga, or tribal assembly, to create a neutral government. This implies that Najib will step down. As the war drags on, Western public opinion, Pakistani domestic opinion and the tired five million Afghan refugees and moderate Afghan guerrilla parties are likely to favor this option — especially if the hated Hikmatyar is kept out of the running.

It is unlikely that the next US president will strongly push Congress to provide more aid to the mujahidin for an extended civil war that could drag on for years. US public interest in Afghanistan will rapidly wane once the Soviet troops have withdrawn. This made it even more necessary for General Zia and his American backers to bring about the fall of Kabul by the end of the year. But Zia was not able to promote the necessary unity or military drive within the mujahidin.

The divergence between US and Pakistani policy on Afghanistan that began at Geneva will likely increase. The main issue at stake is continued US aid to Pakistan. The $3.2 billion US military and economic aid program to Pakistan in 1982 was followed by another $4 billion for 1988-93. Half of this was earmarked for military purchases by Pakistan. After Israel and Egypt, Pakistan is the third largest recipient of US aid.

This aid was dramatically cut off for a six week period in the winter of 1987-88, a sharp reminder to Islamabad that President Reagan was finding it difficult to certify again to Congress that Pakistan was not making a nuclear bomb. On January 16, 1988, Reagan cleared the $480 million aid package for 1988 by certifying that there was no Pakistani bomb. Congress accepted the certification because of the sensitive stage that the Afghanistan negotiations had reached, rather than with any assurance that Pakistan had really downgraded its nuclear program.

The threat of aid reductions comes at a time when Pakistan faces an economic crisis, which economists say is much worse than the one the country faced in 1971 when it lost the war in Bangladesh. The Pakistani military received another economic blow late last year when Saudi Arabia sent back some 20,000 Pakistani troops that had been stationed there since 1983 and for which Islamabad had received large payments. Growing US ties with India and the transfer of US military technology to the Indian military also increased nervousness in Islamabad.

But Washington cannot afford to end military aid to Pakistan. This year Pakistan is buying $343 million dollars of US arms including 11 F-16 fighters and 560 Sparrow and Sidewinder missiles. [7] In April the US also sent the new M-1A1 Abrams main battle tank to Pakistan for testing and the Pakistani military hope to buy at least 60 of them. (General Zia, the 30 high-ranking officers travelling with him, and the US ambassador and military attaché were returning from a demonstration of the Abrams tank in battlefield maneuvers when their plane exploded in mid-August.)

Although the Reagan administration has cautiously expanded ties with India, it has not done so at the cost of abandoning Pakistan. Washington remains wary in light of India’s close ties with the Soviets and its development of a blue water navy that will have a power projection much beyond its coastal waters and could pose a threat to US strategic aims in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf.

Washington’s military ties with Pakistan did not depend only on General Zia. Rather they rest on the army as an institution and sustaining that army as the final arbiter of political power in Pakistan. Zia is dispensable, but US-Pakistan military ties are not.

These close military ties have one major obstacle: Pakistan’s nuclear program. There are real fears in Pakistan that any future regime threatened internally, or by its neighbors, might test a nuclear bomb.This would be popular, would rally the Pakistani public around the government, would serve as a warning to India and would boost Pakistan’s image in the Islamic world.

The hawks in Islamabad who favor such a move argue that although US and Western countries would immediately cut off aid, the West would eventually have to come to terms with a nuclear Pakistani fait accompli. At the same time they argue that it would take years for Pakistan to develop an effective delivery system, thus postponing any threat to stability in the region.

The main reason Pakistan has kept both its bomb and its US aid has been the Afghan war, but as that draws to a close Washington may well come down hard. Michael Dukakis has already said that he is against nuclear proliferation in the Third World and that “I would be very tough on Pakistan.” [8] George Bush has advocated a regional non-proliferation policy that would press India as well. However even George Bush in the White House would likely be faced with a Democrat-dominated Senate and Congress, and it has always been the Democrats who have most loudly voiced their fears about a Pakistani bomb.

The superpowers may now be coming to an understanding on the crucial importance of India as the regional power in the area. Both Moscow and Washington remained silent on the Indian military intervention in Sri Lanka. In Bangladesh, where General Ershad’s policies are rapidly running the country into the ground, the superpowers seem to appreciate rather than deplore Indian influence.

India in recent months has been trying to set up a moderate coalition government in Kabul. Pakistan terms this interference. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has given notice to Pakistan that India will do everything it can to stop a victory by the fundamentalist wing of the mujahidin. India is playing on liberal feeling in Washington that the US should not be backing anti-Western fundamentalists. A Democrat in the White House is likely to be more receptive to this Indian argument.

Offsetting this is Pakistan’s strategic value to Washington. It is bordered by Iran, Afghanistan and the Soviet Union — to varying degrees all US adversaries. This makes it essential that the US maintain close ties with Pakistan to keep it clear of the Soviet orbit. The next administration in Washington will face immense difficulties to unravel and then reestablish a new relationship.

A great deal will depend on the succession to Zia and how that effects Islamabad’s nuclear policy. The US is unlikely to reduce its support for the Pakistan military or encourage a move towards real democracy. But the US would like to see a more controllable military, one pliant and flexible enough to make up with India if the superpowers should so decide.



[1] See New York Times, April 18, 1988.
[2] Independent, May 31, 1988.
[3] Independent, October 13, 1987.
[4] International Herald Tribune, April 1, 1988.
[5] Interviews with US and other Western diplomats in Geneva during March and in Islamabad during May and June.
[6] Ahmed Rashid, “Tired Mujheddin Pursue Their War Without Direction,” Independent, June 6, 1988. Mujahidin claims that they were able to take large towns were being hastily reassessed by them.
[7] International Herald Tribune, April 7, 1988.
[8] See Michael White, “The Duke Looks to the Far Horizons,” Guardian Weekly, June 5, 1988 for an analysis of Dukakis’ foreign policy ideas.

How to cite this article:

Ahmed Rashid "Pakistan After Reagan," Middle East Report 155 (November/December 1988).

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