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The US and Pakistan - uneasy bedfellows?

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The US and Pakistan - uneasy bedfellows?


The greatest casualty of the operation to eliminate Osama bin Laden, apart from the al Qaeda leader himself, may well be the relationship between the US and Pakistan.

The current phase of bi-lateral relations got underway after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Keen to help Islamabad arm and support the Afghan resistance, Washington handed over billions of dollars in funds. This continued until the end of the conflict in 1988.

But in spring 1998, relations began to sour as Pakistan embarked on its first nuclear weapons tests. The flow of aid from Washington dried up.

The situation worsened again after the coup d’etat in October 1999 which brought General Pervez Musharraf to power. From this point on, cooperation between Islamabad and Washington would be limited to tackling the trade in illegal drugs.

The new government in Pakistan chose to back the Taliban in Afghanistan in the name of regional stability. The same Taliban suspected by the US of sheltering its most wanted man – Osama bin Laden.

The al Qaeda leader was thought to be behind attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

But it was 9/11 that changed everything.

Fearful of being co-opted into pressuring the Taliban to hand bin Laden over, and of suffering the consequences of any US military retaliation, Musharraf changed his strategy.

He allowed the Americans full use of Pakistani military bases. Over a ten-year period, the US would give Pakistan 20 billion dollars in direct and indirect aid to secure its cooperation.

But the human cost for Pakistan was high. Local populations fled the fighting along the border as waves of Afghan refugees flooded in. There were frequent attacks by militants.

Then, in July 2010, the whistleblowing site Wikileaks published documents suggesting that the US suspected Pakistan of playing a double game and courting the militants. Islamabad strongly denies this but it is evident that Washington does not have blind faith in this marriage of convenience.

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