Pakistan’s Abandonment Narrative: Reading Between the Lines

President Bush with General Pervez Musharraf, Wikimedia Commons

By Hijab Shah, Columnist


Pakistani media was recently abuzz with various political and military leaders condemning a Pentagon report which claimed Pakistan utilizes “proxy forces to hedge against the loss of influence in Afghanistan and to counter India’s superior military.”[1] From an outpouring of op-ed articles to an actual summons issued by the Pakistani government to Ambassador Richard Olson, this report rekindled the ever-glowing embers of Pakistan’s narrative of betrayal and abandonment by the United States.

Despite long-standing ties between the two countries, this abandonment narrative is deeply entrenched in Pakistani society, encouraged by the political establishment, and embraced by the public. The common refrain is the United States will act like an ally when convenient — during the Cold War and then again in the Global War on Terror — using Pakistan to further American ambitions and interests in the region, and then reneging on their promises and throwing Pakistan under the bus at the worst possible moments when it is of no further strategic use.[2]

How legitimate is Pakistan’s abandonment narrative?

Pakistan’s narrative elicits frustration and scorn in American academic and political circles. The United States accuses Pakistan of abusing its goodwill — and especially its monetary and military support — to further aims contrary to American values, and then reacting with outrage to consequences that should be fairly obvious.

The first instance of Pakistan’s perceived duplicity is when it went to war with India in 1965, using weapons supplied by the United States on its neighbor. American fighter jets and tanks meant to counter the Soviets were instead utilized by Pakistan in an attempt to wrangle Kashmir from an India weakened by recent losses to China.[3] When the United States slapped sanctions on Pakistan and stopped sending the country military and economic aid, Pakistan’s indignation met with little American sympathy.

Feelings of betrayal stirred up again in Pakistan in 1990, when President George H. W. Bush refused to certify that Pakistan was not developing nuclear weapons. The conditions of the Pressler Amendment put Pakistan under strict sanctions, cutting off vital American military and economic aid to the country. Pakistan had continued to develop its nuclear capabilities covertly even as it shared a close bilateral partnership with the United States in their efforts against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

In more recent years, Pakistan’s relationship with the United States has been on tenterhooks since Osama Bin Laden was found hiding mere miles away from the Pakistan Military Academy in Abbottabad. Coming at the helm of tensions over alleged covert Pakistani support for anti-Afghan and anti-ISAF militant groups, the Bin Laden raid has led American frustration with Pakistan’s perceived dishonesty to reach boiling point, with no real signs of simmering down.

However, it takes two to tango. The United States has, indeed, strung Pakistan along on several significant occasions, and failed to live up to its ally’s inflated expectations when the chips were down. In the lead-up to the 1965 war, Pakistan felt certain their membership in CENTO and SEATO guaranteed American military assistance in the event that Pakistan went to war. Pakistan’s strategic miscalculations in 1965 were heavily reliant upon an illusion of American support that was never really there; in light of Pakistan’s loss at the hands of India, American sanctions rubbed salt into Pakistan’s festering wounds. American diplomats and military leaders did nothing to disabuse Pakistan of this notion, fully aware though they were of Pakistan’s misperceptions and ambitions.[4] It thus comes as no surprise that Pakistan felt betrayed and abandoned by its ally, and that feeling of abandonment remains salient to this day.

The Pakistani people have their own quarrel with the United States. Whenever the two countries enjoy close relations, they have been with Pakistan’s military dictators — namely, Field Marshal Ayub Khan in the era of CENTO and SEATO, General Zia-ul-Haq, during the Soviet jihad, and General Pervez Musharraf soon after 9/11. In the cases of Generals Zia and Musharraf, the United States bent over backwards to accommodate and even turn a blind eye to previously punished indiscretions — overthrowing democratically elected leaders and developing a prohibited nuclear weapons program — because Pakistan served a strategic purpose beneficial to American success in Afghanistan against the Soviets in the 1980s and against Al Qaeda after 9/11.

Although American relations soured with each of these leaders by the end of their terms, the bitterest years of the bilateral relationship took place when Pakistan was under civilian rule. Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s acrimonious relationship with the United States culminated in the first American nuclear embargo of Pakistan under President Jimmy Carter. When the Pressler Amendment was invoked in 1990, the government of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and later, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, bore the brunt of the American sanctions regime. Relations between the two countries worsened in 1998 after Pakistan retaliated to an Indian nuclear weapons test with one of their own.

Pakistan’s leadership has, at various points, received mixed messages from their American counterparts. This fickleness has led to public resentment against the United States on the part on Pakistan’s political and military leaders, and is an oft-repeated theme in Pakistani drawing rooms. Additionally, the Pakistani populace sees the United States consciously supporting the wrong leaders, and ignoring their indiscretions out of convenience only to renege and punish them once American utility was achieved.

Although Pakistan’s abandonment narrative has, time and again, been thoroughly exaggerated and exploited opportunistically by the county’s leaders, it is not entirely unfounded. The political community in Washington does not acknowledge that, which leads to frustrations plaguing the alliance. Better understanding Pakistan’s grievances and being mindful of the American image in Pakistan are the first of a long series of steps the United States would need to take if it wants to reverse the abandonment narrative.


Hijab Shah is a Masters candidate at the Security Studies Program, concentrating in military operations. Hailing from Peshawar, Pakistan, Hijab graduated from the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University with a major in Culture and Politics and a concentration in South Asian security and politics.


[1] United States Department of Defense. Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan. 1-B45BE2B. Washington, D.C.:October 17, 2014.

[2] Two exceptional works that detail the fraught US-Pakistan relationship and inform this piece are How Pakistan Negotiates with the United States: Riding the Roller Coaster by Howard B. Schaffer and Teresita C. Schaffer, and No Exit from Pakistan by Daniel S. Markey.

[3] The Pakistan Air Force flew fighter sorties against India with American planes (F-86F Sabres, F-104 Starfighters, and B-57 Canberra bombers), whilst the armored division consisted of American tanks (Patton M-47 and M-48 tanks, but also included many M4 Sherman tanks, some M24 Chaffee light tanks and M36 Jackson tank destroyers). Sources: John Fricker, “Pakistan’s Air Power.” Flight International, 16 January 1969.89-94; and Anna Orton, India’s Borderland Disputes: China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. India: Epitome Books, 2010. 110.

[4] Oral accounts by American diplomats are detailed in footnote no. 4 in: Howard B. Schaffer and Teresita C. Schaffer. How Pakistan Negotiates with the United States: Riding the Roller Coaster. 2011: United States Institute for Peace. 5.

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