(W)ARCHIVES: U.S.-Pakistan Relations: Not much has changed in 14 years


As the United States prepares to pull combat troops from Afghanistan by 2015, it is once again counting on a promise by Pakistan to rein in Islamist militants operating from its territory. Pakistan, so the argument goes, has recognized the folly of its past practices of arming and training jihadis to counter India after facing the blow-back from a domestic Taliban insurgency. The government says it now wants to give priority to security at home.

To give some perspective to Pakistan promises, once classified cables available through the State Department’s Freedom of Information Act show similar pledges being made in 2000 – a time when the United States was increasingly worried about the threat from al Qaeda but still enjoying its last full year of peace.

In a cable summarizing a meeting with Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington Maleeha Lodhi, then Undersecretary of State Tom Pickering warned Pakistan that its policies on Afghanistan and Kashmir were out of control and directly threatened U.S. national security interests. The meeting was meant to follow up on the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane from Kathmandu to Taliban-controlled Kandahar at the end of 1999, in which India was forced to hand over three militants in Indian jails in return for the release of the passengers and crew.  While Pickering said the United States did not think Pakistani authorities had planned the hijacking, it wanted action against the hijackers and freed prisoners who had escaped to Pakistan.

Ambassador Lodhi promised that Pakistan would try to detain two of the three prisoners freed and he proposed a “strategic dialogue” with the United States to discuss tensions in the relationship. Among those three freed prisoners were British-Pakistani Omar Saeed Sheikh, who lived openly in Pakistan until he was arrested and convicted for masterminding the kidnapping of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl in 2002. Another was Maulana Masood Azhar, who went on to found the Jaish-e-Mohammed militant group blamed for an attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001. As recently as January, he was allowed to address a public rally calling for a renewed jihad in Indian Kashmir.

Another declassified cable from later in 2000 shows India blaming Pakistan for the hijacking, with support from the Pakistan embassy in Nepal, and asking the United States for help in countering terrorism in the region.

Reading through those cables, it is hard to see that much has changed – Pickering repeatedly warned in 2000 that Pakistan’s own interests and those of the United States were threatened by Pakistan’s policies towards Islamist militants – just as Washington does now. Only one element has changed: in 2000 Pickering acknowledged that the Kashmir dispute was “a root cause of conflict in South Asia” and promised the United States would try to help resolve it. Such sympathy for Pakistan’s view of the Kashmir dispute dissipated years ago in the U.S.-Pakistan tensions over the Afghan war. Otherwise the United States continues to hope that Pakistan will change it approach to Islamist militants, just as it did in 2000.


Myra MacDonald is a former Reuters journalist who has worked in Europe, the Middle East and South Asia. She was Chief Correspondent in France and Bureau Chief in India. After publishing Heights of Madness, a book on the Siachen war between India and Pakistan, she has focused in recent years on writing about Pakistan.


Image: Santanu Mondal