Has Pakistan been a client state?

November 20, 2022

In terms of major decisions, Pakistan has never acted like a client state.

Has Pakistan been a client state?


he narrative that Pakistan is a client state of the United States (US) is a dull and insipid view adopted by many Pakistanis among the powerful elite as well as in the educated middle class. Sometimes people go so far as to compare the American ambassadors in Pakistan to the British viceroys during colonial rule. Some say that all important decisions about Pakistan’s future are made in Washington DC. This view is brought into question if one considers the following facts.

In 1955, Pakistan joined the Baghdad Pact, which later became CENTO, and then SEATO, to become a part of the Western alliance in the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. This is considered by some the point where Pakistan became a client state subordinate to the US. But the motivation, from Pakistan’s point of view, was India’s territorial aggression at its borders in 1950 and 1951. Furthermore, the Kashmir war (1947-48), though settled in India’s favour, meant Kashmir remained an issue that could flare up again. Pakistan’s senior leadership wanted military aid, especially tanks and aeroplanes. By joining the Baghdad Pact, Pakistan received rather large contingents of both and thus, from the point of view of both the civilian and military leadership, this was a good bargain in their perceived national interest. At the time, Pakistan was just over a decade old, and it did not have a military anywhere near as well equipped to protect its borders as it does now. How many of us would rather have a weak army and air force instead of joining the Western powers in the 1950s?

Let us skip ahead to the 1965 war. Pakistan used all the weapons it had, including the aeroplanes and tanks it had been given by the US, against India. However, according to treaties signed by Pakistan with the US, these weapons were only supposed to be used against communist opponents and not countries that were neutral in the Cold War. Since Pakistan had no choice but to violate this agreement, the US blocked the supply of spare parts and ammunition for those weapons. The US also plugged military aid to India but it did not matter much because India was not dependent on the US for weapons. For Pakistan, it was a disaster. These conditions had been a part of the fine print at the time of purchase but nobody in Pakistan took those seriously. So, what did Pakistan do then? Did it leave the relationship up to the US? Ayub Khan asked the Americans for aid but also took back the Badaber base from them because it was provoking the Russians. Now that the American cow could no longer be milked, Ayub Khan had no qualms about leaving them out to dry.

Zia did not support Islamists under America’s orders. He did what he thought was in Pakistan’s interest at the time, and defied the Americans with the construction of the nuclear bomb. Aid was stopped (except some humanitarian relief) when the Soviet Union was defeated and America no longer needed Pakistan.

Unlike a conventional client state, Pakistan strengthened its relationship with China though it was a communist country and the US did not approve of this. Pakistan went on ignoring the opinion of the Western powers and grew closer to China till, in the irony of ironies, it was the United States which had to ask for Pakistan’s help to get through to China. At the time, China, already an emerging military power, was thought to be the only communist country that could one up the USSR, if it was possible. Henry Kissinger came to Pakistan and visited China incognito. He was assisted by Gen Yahya Khan, to whom President Nixon and Kissinger were thankful for this service. They were so obliged that they trashed the reports of the American consul general in Dhaka (related to The Blood Telegram by Gary J Baas) in which he reported human rights violations in the military actions of March 25-26, 1971. Addressing ‘all hands’, Nixon wrote, “Don’t squeeze Yahya at this time.” Since America’s tilt was towards Yahya, different organs of the US state machinery were in conflict with one another when Pakistan’s relations with China grew stronger. Of course, both the Americans and the Chinese had decided not to escalate militarily. I have quoted documents proving this in my recent book, Pakistan’s Wars: an Alternative History (2022).

Next came Pakistan’s atomic bombs. Bhutto decided to ramp up efforts to finish a nuclear bomb when India conducted a successful experiment (called The Mmiling Buddha) in 1974. America did not take any action though Bhutto and many of his followers say this was the reason behind his assassination. The ‘judicial murder’ of Bhutto was a decision taken by Zia-ul Haq who considered Bhutto so vindictive that he could not risk letting him live. Had America been willing and able to stop the nuclear programme of Pakistan, they would not have allowed the bomb to be completed. It is true the US needed Zia in its proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan but Pakistan did not assist the Americans like a client state would. In fact, it was Bhutto and not Zia who initially supported Islamist fighters like Hekmatyar in Afghanistan. Besides, before America was concerned with the war in Afghanistan, Zia had already started helping the tribal chiefs who were resisting the communist regime in Kabul. It is true that this was at a minor scale, but Zia did not support Islamists under America’s orders. In my view, his decision was wrong, but Zia did not act like a slave or a servant of any foreign power. He did what he thought was in Pakistan’s interest at the time and defied the Americans with the construction of the nuclear bomb. Punishment was meted out as aid was stopped (except some humanitarian relief) when the Soviet Union was defeated and America no longer needed Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif successfully tested the atom bomb in spite of American pressure in 1998.

Moving on, we can take a look at America’s War on Terror against Al Qaeda which began in 2001 and continues till the present day. The suggestion that Musharraf made the decision to join America’s war after a single phone call is false. Nor is it true that he submitted to all of America’s demands. Musharraf actually ‘ran with the hare and hunted with the hounds.’ On the one hand he gave mainly Arab militants to the US and on the other he tried to protect some Taliban fighters as insurance there would be an anti-India government in Kabul once the Americans left Afghanistan. This resulted in further weakening the already weak, corrupt and inefficient US-backed Kabul government to the extent that the Taliban took over the country in 2021 just as Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies desired. From their point of view this was necessary since Pakistani authorities did not want a pro-India government in Afghanistan. The Taliban regime’s human rights violations and anti-women policies were of least concern. That is why there was so much euphoria in Pakistan about the US withdrawing from Afghanistan and the Taliban victory in Kabul was called Pakistan’s victory over the US. In my view this duplicitous policy of Pakistan increased religious militancy in the country and may encourage the growth of the Pakistani Taliban in the future. However, Pakistan did not act as a client state.

In short, if one looks at the major decisions, Pakistan has never acted as a client state. It is a small, economically weak country but its rulers have never been subservient to the United States. In my view Pakistan’s rulers were frequently influenced to make poor decisions since they created religious extremism and war at the behest of international powers, but Pakistan is not subservient to the US or the UK or China. Pakistan’s rulers have acted in what they thought were the best interest of the country though, of course, powerful countries have influenced Pakistan’s trajectory. This happens all over the world.

The author is an occasional contributor

Has Pakistan been a client state?