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Pakistan-US Relations Post-Cold War


Relations between Pakistan and the United States have been tumultuous since the 1950s, a trend that continued after the Cold War ended in 1991. During the Cold War, one US strategy was to make alliances with different countries to counter the expansion of Soviet communism and influence. The United States considered Pakistan an ally in the Middle East and in the region of Southern Asia.

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However, after the Cold War, Pakistan lost its geopolitical significance to the United States, which consequently affected the relationship between the two countries and influenced policy changes, especially concerning security matters and the possession of nuclear weapons by Pakistan. At the present time, the current Trump administration has suspended military and economic aid to Pakistan. This paper explains my disagreement with this policy in the course of examining in detail Pakistan-US relations in the post-Cold War era. To lay a foundation for consideration, a background discussion will highlight how and why the United States and Pakistan became allies to clarify understanding of their relationship in the Cold War context.


In the 1940s, the Pakistani administration approached its American counterpart for financial and security assistance, but the United States declined the request. However, as the Cold War progressed, the US government recognized the need for strategic partners in Asia and the Middle East to counter Soviet communist expansionism in the region. The United States first approached India, but the latter country rejected the request, leaving Pakistan as an alternative for a strategically.

Pakistan readily accepted the US government’s request to become the frontline state in the fight against communism in the region, especially after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan toward the end of 1979. In the 1980s, both the Carter and Reagan administrations offered security and economic aid to Pakistan as part of this partnership deal. Specifically, in September 1981, the Reagan administration offered $3.2 billion in economic and security aid to Pakistan in an agreement to run for five years (LePoer 5). Consequently, Pakistan acted as a conduit to pass weapons and other assistance in the Afghan fight against encroaching Soviet communism.

However, most members of Congress were concerned about Pakistan’s efforts to acquire and develop nuclear weapons. In 1985, Congress required President Reagan to certify that Pakistan was not developing nuclear weapons capabilities while the aid was being offered. Ultimately, in 1986, through the Pressler Amendment, an additional 6-year $4 billion aid package for Pakistan was authorized (LePoer 5). However, in 1988, as the Soviet Union began to withdraw from Afghanistan, the relevance of Pakistan as a geopolitical partner to the United States started to wane. The focus shifted to security matters as the United States became increasingly concerned with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. This concern continued to shape US-Pakistan relations in the post-Cold War era.

Relations in the Post-Cold War Era

President H. W. George Bush, in office when the Cold War ended, played a significant role in the shaping of US-Pakistan relations during that period. Even before he assumed office, Bush had warned Pakistan that it would face severe sanctions based on its pursuit of developing nuclear capabilities. In 1989, Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, at the time the chief of staff of Pakistan’s army, visited the United States, and during his meeting with Brent Scowcroft, Bush’s security advisor, it was made clear that the United States would not further tolerate Pakistan’s nuclear advancements.

Brent told Beg, “You have to realize that the administration’s hands are tied on the nuclear issue. President Bush [will] certify as long as he [can] under the Pressler amendment, but he [will] not lie. Pakistan [stands] very close to the line” (Kux 299). The Pressler Amendment had been formed earlier in 1985 as Congress debated whether Pakistan should be given any form of aid by the United States, given Pakistan’s pursuit of nuclear weapons proliferation (Pressler 45).

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Therefore, the amendment was a compromise to allow Pakistan to receive US aid if it did not pursue its nuclear weapons ambitions. The United States insisted that Pakistan had to observe the Pressler agreement or face sanctions. Addressing Islamabad at the same time, US ambassador to Pakistan Robert Oakley said, “If you take any action on the nuclear program and you go past the line … [Bush] will blow the whistle and invoke Pressler” (Kux 300). However, Pakistan continued to develop nuclear weapons, disregarding warnings from the United States. Ultimately, in October 1990, the United States froze $564 million in aid to Pakistan. By this time, the Cold War was nearing its end, and US-Pakistan relations were embarking on a turbulent course that has continued to date.

It was revoking the Pressler Amendment in the 1990s severely affected US-Pakistan relationships. As part of cutting military aid, the United States stopped the supply of F-16 fighter jets that Pakistan had ordered and paid for, withholding the money that Pakistan had paid for the jets. According to LePoer, the Pakistani administration considered taking the United States to the international court over the issue (4).

It took eight years for Pakistan to recover its assets and the financial losses that accrued from the revocation of the Pressler agreement (Markey 91). According to J. Khan, “Disregarding Pakistan’s concerns, the release of F-16 fighter jets was conditioned with ‘capping’ of Pakistan’s controversial nuclear program…This was the first ‘gift’ of US-Pakistan estrangement after the end of Cold War” (215). Other Western countries also began to question Pakistan’s development of nuclear weapons, and Pakistan was thrown into international isolation that inflicted devastating economic, political, and military consequences.

Revoking the Pressler Amendment and effectively cutting aid to Pakistan led to unintended consequences. The United States hoped that cutting military and economic aid would compel Pakistan to reconsider its stand on the development of nuclear weapons. However, the sanctions motivated Pakistan, which needed the means to counter India’s efforts to destabilize the country, to pursue its nuclear ambitions with renewed zeal.

Therefore, the Pakistani administration reasoned that having nuclear weapons capability would allow it to stay abreast of India in terms of arms. Regarding the need for nuclear capability, Pakistan’s foreign minister to the United States, Gohar Ayub, recalled saying,

It was precisely the US sanctions imposed on us in 1965 that had encouraged Pakistan to acquire long-range missiles and nuclear weapons. India’s supplies had continued to come in from Russia, which had put us in a position in which it was necessary for us to turn to missiles and nuclear weapons to ensure our national security (G. Khan 37).

In other words, Pakistan believed that its pursuit of nuclear weapons was justified now that the United States had abandoned it, and India was developing the same capabilities.

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Pakistan thus resorted to other means of acquiring the requisite technology to build nuclear weapons, turning to North Korea for missile technology and China for M-11 missiles (Levy and Scott-Clark 247). China’s willingness to partner with Pakistan dented US policies regarding nuclear nonproliferation in the region. Therefore, the US sanctions on Pakistan appeared to yield results opposite to what they had been expected to gain. J. Khan posits, “The US policymakers failed to understand that the rollback of nuclear capability was not possible for Pakistan while the containment of this program was possible through certain US measures” (226).

In this scenario, US policymakers failed to acknowledge that while coercion had worked on North Korea and other countries in the Middle East, it would not yield the same results with Pakistan. On the contrary, peaceful and persuasive negotiations would have been highly productive in achieving its nuclear nonproliferation goals in the region.

Pakistan was living in international isolation caused by the US government’s revocation of the Pressler Amendment in 1990. Moreover, the sanctions had a negative impact on the country’s economic and military well-being, exposing Pakistan to enemies such as India. Therefore, the Pakistani administration was forced to become creative in seeking ways to defend its sovereignty and secure its borders while lacking the means to carry out these nationalistic duties. In response, Pakistan accelerated its nuclear weapons development as a last line of defense. The fear of attack was confirmed in May 1998 when India tested its nuclear capabilities by detonating five devices (Dhanda 260).

Even after this incident, the United States—the strongest critic of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons development—did not assist Pakistan in any way. In fact, when India tested its nuclear devices, the Clinton administration did not offer any security umbrella to Pakistan, further weakening the US-Pakistan relationship.

Apart from Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation efforts, the United States was concerned about the country’s support to the Kashmir insurgency that had erupted in 1989 at a time when US-Pakistan relations were waning, believing that Pakistan was supporting the Kashmir insurgency covertly, behavior that could not be tolerated. The insurgents, who wanted to annex Kashmir and Jammu to Pakistan, were associated with a terrorist organization from Afghanistan, the Taliban (Behera 47).

India claimed that the insurgents were being trained and funded from Pakistan, linking the country directly to terrorism. The United States indicated it would classify Pakistan with other countries that supported terrorism if the latter continued to associate with the Kashmir insurgents, and this aspect would effectively end any relationship between the two countries. The Pakistani ambassador to the United States met Arnold Kanter, then Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, in Washington, where the issue of terrorism was raised. Kanter warned, “If you get hit with this, on top of Pressler that will end the U.S.-Pakistan relationship” (Kux 316). Kanter meant that Pakistan was compromising its relationship with the United States on two fronts: the nuclear proliferation issue and the support for Kashmir insurgents.

In the years that followed the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, matters related to terrorism converged with the nuclear proliferation issue to shape the US-Pakistan relationship. Toward the end of 1991, then the United States ambassador to Pakistan Nicholas Platt focused on these two issues. Initially, Pakistan maintained that it was only offering political and moral support to the Kashmir insurgents.

However, through Platt’s efforts, the Pakistani administration, through the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, conceded that it had been offering more than moral support to the outlawed sect (Kux 316). In the face of mounting pressure from the United States for Pakistan to denounce the insurgents, the ISI could not find an appropriate response that would cushion both the government and the outlawed sect. On the one hand, Pakistan’s foreign office wanted the ISI to reign over the insurgents and complied with US demands. On the other hand, the ISI maintained that supporting the insurgents was good for the country with the presumption that the United States would not brand Pakistan a terrorist nation.

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However, the United States was serious about its threats, and Pakistan risked classification as a rogue nation together with Iran, Libya, and North Korea. Therefore, Pakistani Prime Minister Sharif ultimately compelled the foreign office to cut links with the insurgents and comply with US demands. As the Bush administration completed its term in 1993, a US-Pakistan relationship barely existed. The strained nature of this relationship could be understood and anticipated, given the fall of the Soviet Union and Pakistan becoming what the United States considered a nuclear and terrorist pariah in the region.

Efforts to Strengthen US-Pakistan Relations

When President Clinton came to power in 1993, he sought to pursue bilateral engagements with different countries across the world. Isolating Pakistan was no longer an option as history had proved that such action would yield results opposite to those expected. Therefore, despite the fact that the Clinton administration had inherited strained US-Pakistan relations from President Bush, some key individuals within the government believed that engaging the smaller state would work for the ultimate good of the United States and the world at large. For example, then Assistant Secretary of State Robin Raphael argued that Pakistan was still useful to the US agenda in the Islamic region (Kux 139).

Raphael had been appointed by the Clinton administration to work with the Bureau of South Asian Affairs, and when she visited South Asia for the first time in 1993, she implied that the United States was willing to work with Pakistan once more. She noted that the United States was against the accession of Kashmir to India, and these sentiments were received positively in Islamabad (Kux 139). Another key figure in the Clinton administration that supported renewed US-Pakistan relations was Secretary of Defense, William Perry.

He considered Pakistan to be a potential partner in the expansion of UN peacekeeping missions around the world. When Perry visited Islamabad in 1995, he openly praised the Pakistani government for its efforts to reestablish security ties with the United States, saying, “I intend to press on, to make the most I can of the security relations between the United States and Pakistan … I want to try to make things better” (Kux 138). As such, the United States was sending a signal of its willingness to accept Pakistan as a strategic ally in the region.

However, the revocation of the Pressler Amendment was in effect, which meant that the United States and Pakistan did not have working relations. Therefore, individuals such as Republican Senator Hank Brown started pushing the US government to lift its sanctions and restore relations with Pakistan, a decision that would allow Pakistan to recover its assets and other financial benefits. Senator Brown sought to amend the Foreign Assistance Act and create a one-time suspension of the Pressler sanctions. In the process, the Pakistani government would access all its military assets that had been frozen in the United States, excluding the F-16 fighter jets.

In addition, Pakistan would be allowed to resume its military training exercises and receive economic aid from the United States. However, Brown’s proposal faced stiff resistance from the US Congress and the Indian-American community. It was argued that lifting the sanctions against Pakistan would destabilize South Asia by tipping the balance of power in the region. However, Raphael and other like-minded individuals continued to advocate for the reestablishment of US-Pakistan relations. Appearing before a Senate hearing, Raphael stated,

The key impact of sanctions relief is not military or financial. The effect would be primarily in the political realm, creating a sense of faith restored and an unfairness rectified with a country and a people who have been loyal friends of the United States over the decades (Kux 331).

When Clinton was reelected in 1996, his new administration continued the quest to partner with Pakistan as a way of fostering US interests in South Asia and the Middle East. Thomas Pickering, who replaced Robin Raphael, continued to pursue her convictions concerning Pakistan. Pickering said, “We want to show that we don’t consider South Asia the backside of the diplomatic globe” (Kux 340). However, just as it appeared that the United States was on course to reestablish bilateral relations with Pakistan, India detonated five nuclear devices in May 1998.

While US policies on nuclear nonproliferation had yielded significant results, India’s actions threatened to derail the process. Then Pakistani Prime Minister Sharif was placed in a precarious situation. On the one hand, he wanted to respond to India’s provocation by showing that his country also had nuclear capabilities. On the other hand, the United States was putting pressure on him not to respond to India’s actions by testing his country’s nuclear weapons.

However, domestic pressure for the prime minister to respond was mounting, forcing him to take action. President Clinton tried to persuade Sharif in various ways, including sending Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbot to Pakistan for further negotiations.

However, Prime Minister Sharif was not persuaded to eschew testing the country’s nuclear weapons. On May 28, 1998, Pakistan detonated five of its many nuclear devices, to the chagrin of the Clinton administration. Dismayed, Clinton commented, “By failing to exercise restraint in responding to the Indian test, Pakistan lost a truly priceless opportunity to strengthen its own security, to improve its political standing in the world” (Kux 346). Consequently, the United States was forced to continue sanctioning Pakistan, further deteriorating relations.

During Clinton’s last term, it became clear that Afghanistan was posing serious threats to the United States. In August 1998, the Taliban bombed the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The United States launched retaliatory attacks at Taliban bases in Afghanistan without informing Pakistan. This act angered the country, and even though the United States pressured Sharif to reign over Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban at large, the relationship between the two states was characterized by a lack of mutual trust.

Moreover, the two sides had experienced numerous missed opportunities to foster their relations. In January 2000, Clinton visited Pakistan on a tour that lasted only five hours due to security reasons (Markey 179).

In a closed-door meeting, President Clinton tasked President Musharraf to deal conclusively with the Taliban problem. In an uncensored broadcast, Clinton warned of the “danger that Pakistan might grow even more isolated, draining even more resources away from the needs of the people, moving even closer to conflict no one can win” (Markey 180). This short visit to the country entrenched the long-held view among most Pakistanis that the United States had neglected the country by promoting its self-interest. This view became popular among Pakistanis because Clinton had spent five days in India, one of Pakistan’s fiercest rivals. Therefore, US-Pakistan relations continued to worsen. However, things would change after September 9, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

Post 9/11

After the 9/11 attacks, the United States found itself in a similar position to that it had experienced during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. To fight terrorism in the region, the United States needed strategic allies, and Pakistan was the best-suited partner for the task. Pakistan would be an appropriate base for the United States to launch attacks against the Taliban. Pakistan agreed to support the United States in the war against terrorism, and President George W. Bush responded in kind.

On September 22, 2001, Bush waived all sanctions that had been imposed on Pakistan after the revocation of the Pressler Amendment in the 1990s (Bhattacharya 76). With the renewed relations between the two countries, Pakistan began to enjoy significant economic and military aid from the United States (Epstein and Kronstadt 8). Pakistan’s agreement to participate in the war against terrorism marked a new era of a renewed alliance between the two countries.

However, the cordial US-Pakistan relationship was tested in 2011 during the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden on May 2 of that year. The United States raided bin Laden’s residence in Abbottabad, Pakistan, without the knowledge of the country’s intelligence forces. Later, in November 2011, a NATO airstrike killed dozens of Pakistani troops along the Afghan border (Bhattacharya 76). In retaliation, Pakistan cut off supply lines that the United States used in Afghanistan, further straining the relationship between the two countries.

From that point onward, US-Pakistan relations have been transactional, lacking mutual trust as the operating principle. Bhattacharya posits, “Both sides have managed their bilateral relations rather well considering the mutual suspicions, mistrust, and divergence of views on the region and on the purpose and span of counter-terrorism cooperation” (77). Therefore, it suffices to say that US-Pakistan relations have been ebbing and flowing over the years in the post-Cold War era.

Contemporary Issues and Concerns Surrounding US-Pakistan Relations

Different issues have continued to shape US-Pakistan relations in modern times. The salient factors include terrorism, US financial aid to Pakistan, drone strikes, public opinion in Pakistan, and the benefits that the United States stands to gain from the relationship. First, the United States is continuing to employ drone attacks within Pakistani territories, acts that most Pakistanis claim as violating their sovereignty (Khan and Rehman 22).

As such, this choice of action breeds hatred against the United States, compelling individuals to join terrorist organizations in the region to fight US influence. In addition, this scenario is eroding any goodwill that the United States might have gained among Pakistanis. In terms of aid, the United States reinstated its economic and military assistance programs in 2001 after Pakistan agreed to join the war against terrorism.

In 2009, the controversial Kerry-Lugar-Berman Bill was passed to grant Pakistan $ 7.5 billion in non-military aid—if the recipient agreed to certain terms (Bhattacharya 78). This conditionality underscores the distrust between the United States and Pakistan. However, the United States has continued to support Pakistan through economic and military aid. In 2015, “the US appropriated approximately USD 371 million in security-related assistance and USD 468 million in economic-related aid for Pakistan. An additional USD 1 billion was authorized for the Coalition Support Fund (CSF) reimbursements” (Bhattacharya 79).

The issue of terrorism has continued to plague US-Pakistan relations over the years. In 1989, Pakistan was accused of funding terrorism by supporting and training the Kashmir insurgents. In modern times, terrorism and Islamic extremism are seen as barriers to the fight against Al-Qaeda and the realization of stability in the region, especially in relation to the longstanding conflict between Pakistan and India.

The United States is maintaining that Pakistan should increase its efforts in the war against terrorism. After the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent entry of Pakistan into the war against terrorism, public opinion in the country shows an entrenched distaste for any US presence in Pakistan. Most Pakistanis feel that the United States has infiltrated the country’s government, politics, economy, and military. Most Pakistanis do not trust the United States because it is seen as an unreliable ally driven by self-interest (Khan and Rehman 38). According to Bhattacharya, based on different public opinion surveys, most Pakistanis feel that the United States is an enemy as opposed to an ally (81).

However, the United States benefits significantly by being allowed to operate bases in Pakistan, especially in terms of national security. First, the US presence in the country ensures that terrorist cells are countered before they can wield any significant influence in the region. Second, it ensures that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are inaccessible to terrorist groups. Finally, the US presence in the region has thwarted the escalation of the conflict between India and Pakistan, a state of affairs needed for the stability of the region.

The current US administration has suspended military and economic aid to Pakistan, and I think this decision is wrong. The last time the United States took the same measures, by revoking the Pressler Amendment, Pakistan escalated its nuclear weapons development program and sought partnership with China and North Korea. Unfortunately, the current policy is likely to yield similar results.

If the United States does not cover Pakistan with a security umbrella through military and economic aid, the latter will feel isolated. In retaliation, it might be forced to pursue its nuclear proliferation goals to defend itself from India and other enemies in the region. Moreover, the current policy is likely to place a further strain on US-Pakistan relations, and in the process, the benefits that the United States enjoys in the region might be lost.

For example, with Pakistan developing its nuclear weapons capabilities, strained relationships with the United States might allow terrorist groups access to these weapons, presenting a threat to national and international security. As noted earlier, most Pakistanis disapprove of the presence of the United States in the region, and thus, many individuals have been incentivized by these feelings to join dissenting factions to fight the United States. The threat posed by severed US-Pakistan relations outweighs the benefits of cutting aid to the country as a punishment for its alleged complacency in the war against terrorism. Therefore, I do not support this policy.


US-Pakistan relations in the post-Cold War era have been largely turbulent. In the late 1970s, Pakistan was considered a frontline US ally in the fight against the spread of Soviet communism in the region. However, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, Pakistan’s relevance to the United States waned, and the relationship between the two countries was strained. During the Bush administration in the early 1990s, the United States revoked the Pressler Amendment and suspended military aid to Pakistan.

In retaliation, Pakistan partnered with China and North Korea to advance its nuclear weapons development, a decision that angered the United States. The Clinton administration sought to reestablish the lost cordial relationship between the two nations. However, the few gains that had been made were derailed in 1998 when Pakistan detonated nuclear devices in response to India’s provocation. The Clinton administration was thus forced to continue imposing sanctions on the country.

Next, the 9/11 attacks forced the United States to work with Pakistan once again in the fight against terrorism. Good working relations were reestablished, and military and economic aid to Pakistan resumed. Nevertheless, that relationship was quashed in 2011 with the capture of Osama bin Laden in May, along with the killing of several Pakistani soldiers by NATO strikes in November the same year. Current US-Pakistan relations are transactional, and they lack the quality of mutual trust. Moreover, with the Trump administration’s decision to suspend economic and military aid to the country, relations are likely to deteriorate further. In summary, I do not support the current US foreign policy on Pakistan, as it will cause more harm than benefits.

Works Cited

Behera, Navnita. “The Kashmir Conflict: Multiple Fault Lines.” Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs, vol. 3, no.1, 2016, pp. 41-63.

Bhattacharya, Sanchita. “US-Pakistan Relations in the Context of 21st Century.” US Foreign Policy: Rise and Decline, edited by Ravjeetsingh Atwal, White Falcon Publishing, 2016, pp. 70-88.

Dhanda, Suresh. “Nuclear Weapon Programs of India and Pakistan: A Comparative Assessment.” South Asian Survey, vol. 17, no. 2, 2010, pp. 255-281.

Epstein, Susan, and Alan Kronstadt. Pakistan: U.S. Foreign Assistance. Congressional Research Service, 2012.

Khan, Gohar. Testing Time as Foreign Minister. Dost Publications, 2009.

Khan, Jehangir. “US-Pakistan Relations in the Post-Cold War Era: Implications for World Peace.” MAGNT Research Report, vol. 3, no. 4, 2015, pp. 211-225.

Khan, Waseem, and Jamshed Rehman. US Drone Policy and Anti-American Sentiments in Pakistan (2001-2012). EduPedia Publications, 2014.

Kux, Dennis. The United States and Pakistan, 1947-2000: Disenchanted Allies. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

LePoer, Barbara. Pakistan-U.S. Relations. Congressional Research Service, 2001.

Levy, Adrian, and Catherine Scott-Clark. Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons. Walker & Company, 2007.

Markey, Daniel. No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Pressler, Larry. Neighbors in Arms: An American Senator’s Quest for Disarmament in a Nuclear Subcontinent. Penguin, 2017.

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