US and Pakistan Relations 1958-63

The downward trajectory of the US-Pakistan military relations started early in 1958, even though politically the US was encouraging Ayub as a counterweight to Iskander Mirza. American and Pakistani military officials met in Karachi on 28 Feb. 1958 to review Pakistan’s specific requests for increased aid at the instigation of the Pakistan Ministry of Defence. Pakistan had started pressing for a broad range of weapon systems from the US in 1958. The Pakistan Ambassador sought to make the argument that Pakistan needed these bombers (light bomber squadron) as a ‘deterrent to possible aggression by India’ which in the ambassador’s view would eventually ‘put the screws on Pakistan.’ This would happen, he felt, in the context of the Indus waters dispute. India using its superior military strength would ‘browbeat Pakistan.’ But William Rountree of the Near East Asia Division of the Department of State (and later US Ambassador to Pakistan) countered emphatically that US military aid to Pakistan ‘was not based on the premise that Pakistan was to be armed against India.’ Indeed, he stated that ‘such assumptions by the government of Pakistan and public statements by its leaders implying such premises were hurtful to US interests,’ Ambassador Ali immediately retorted that ‘Our arming is against any aggression; that has been our position all along.’

Badaber Base: Among the more concrete results of the US-Pakistan relationship at that time was the agreement to set up the Peshawar air station, about four and a half miles south of the city of Peshawar. It became operational in Dec. 1958 as the ‘6937th Communication Group’. Originally referred as Operation Sandbag, probably because of the surprise effect on the Soviet Union that was to be the target of eavesdropping and aerial spying by the Americans located in Pakistan, The base came under public scrutiny when Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet union on 7 May 1960 and the Soviets had established that he had taken off from Peshawar.

US Reviews Military Aid to Pakistan:  As 1959 rolled around, the US was in the middle of an internal review of military aid to Pakistan and recognized the criticisms within its own government of military aid as opposed to economic assistance. However, it also weighed military aid to Pakistan in favour of the creation of ‘stability in the broader area of the Middle East that included Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Turkey (members of the Baghdad Pact).

  • Is US’s main objective in Pakistan military or strategic?
  • Is Pakistan’s main value to the US represented by its airfields with their SAC (Strategic Air Command) potential as part of the essential ring of airfields around the USSR?
  • For what specific purpose the US needs Pakistan’s 5 ½ MAP-supported divisions?
  • Are we (US) assisting in this ground forces program for its own sake or primarily as a price for the related SAC air base potential?
  • Have we (US) sufficiently considered that the 5 ½ divisions now supported by the US would in all probability remain pinned down along the Indian and Kashmir borders ion case of hostilities?

The Americans came to the conclusion that ‘American assistance is necessary and will be required for some time to come if Pakistan is to continue to make bases and other military facilities available to the US.’

The 1960s also saw the emergence of strains in the relationship with the United States, fueled by much internal debate in Washington on its balance sheet with Pakistan. Also, the US was shifting attention to India as a potentially better partner—being a huge democracy, a counterweight to China, and a nascent market for US goods and services. A series of exchanges with Pakistan about the treaty obligations of the US aimed at providing cover for maintaining the status quo took place while the US forged a new approach to South Asia in general. Ayub, on his part, sought to assuage his critics at home b getting the Us to affirm its obligations to protect Pakistan. But he was savvy enough to know in the end he had to protect himself and his country by positioning Pakistan ore as a neutral entity rather than a cold warrior on the American side of the fence.

The Pakistanis were getting concerned about India’s aggressive posture in the region after the Indian invasion of Goa, Daman, and Diu, former Portuguese colonies on India’s west coast and the apparent friendship between the US president and the Indian Prime Minister. Ayub complained to Kennedy about tis posture and cautioned the US against changing its policies towards India. But a shift had started to appear in the US view of the subcontinent. Under the heading, ‘A New Look at Pakistani Tie,’ Robert W. Komer of the NSC staff wrote to his boss, McGeorge Bundy, President Kennedy’s special assistant for National Security Affairs, highlighting the basic differences between the Us and Pakistani view of regional issues in the subcontinent. While recognizing Pakistan’s insecurity as a smaller country in relation to India, Komer warned against letting Ayub push the US ‘into a position which runs contrary to our larger strategic interests in the area,’ adding that, ‘we have failed to get across to him the limitation, as well as in the benefits of our support. Instead he seems to have got the feeling that we are so attached to him as an ally that he can pursue his aims with renewed vigor, and to drag us along with him.’ Acknowledging the provision of facilities to the US by Pakistan, Komer wrote ‘I’m not sure we’ve gotten a lot . . . except paper commitment to SEATO and CENTO.’ Strategically, Komer suggested that if the US were to choose between India and Pakistan, its best bet would be to go with the larger India. He suggested, therefore, that the US take a new tack against Pakistan and not treat Ayub ‘with kid gloves,’ since Ayub needed the US’s help and had few other options of external aid.

Ayub had other ideas though, and upped the ante by taking Kashmir issue once more to the UN Security Council, provoking Kennedy to ask Ayub to suspend the action to which Ayub responded firmly but clearly with a reminder that India had massed 85% of its forces, including armoured formations, ‘within striking distance of our borders.’ A high level meeting in May 1962 was convened under Philip Talbot at the State Department to discuss the ‘current unsatisfactory state of US-Pakistan-Indian relations’ and noted ‘the drift apart of the US and Pakistan. Noting the importance to SEATO and CENTO and the danger of equal treatment of India and Pakistan as being seen unfavorably in Pakistan, the meeting concluded that ‘the US would gain little or nothing by a major shift of our Pakistan policy and a great deal could be lost.’

It was against this background that the Sino-Indian conflict took place and the US rushed to take the lead in providing India with armaments ostensibly to help fend off an onslaught from the Chinese, down the glaciers of the Himalayas and on to the Gangetic plains. Kennedy already keen to win Indian friendship, wrote to Ayub to inform him that the US intended ‘to give the Indians such help as we can for their immediate needs. We will ensure of course that whatever help we give will be used only against the Chinese. The letter then proceeded to ask if Ayub could send a private message to Nehru to allay any concerns of Nehru that Pakistan might take this opportunity (of India’s conflict with China)to create problems on India’s frontiers with Pakistan. Ayub confided to US Ambassador, McConaughy, that he had no intention of taking advantage of India’s preoccupation with China but registered nevertheless his barely concealed anger at the fact that Kennedy had proceeded to aid India without the promised prior consultation with Ayub.

In the White house, Komer clearly understood the depth of Pakistan’s anger but advised Kennedy that ‘there be no give in our position. We have no need to apologize. If we compensate Ayub for our actions vis-à-vis India, we will again be postponing the long needed clarification of our position.’ Ayub’s reply, after a considered pause and consultations with his colleagues was long and argumentative. He expressed surprise at Kennedy’s request about giving an assurance to Nehru at that time given his view that India had moved its formations to battle positions against Pakistan in the west. Ayub’s thrust was towards a resolution of the Kashmir dispute as the best way of creating peace India and Pakistan.

Ayub went to some lengths to keep the spigot of US aid open. In a long and candid exchange with Under Secretary Ball in Rawalpindi on 3 and 4 September, in the presence of Foreign Minister Bhutto, he assured Ball that ‘Pakistan wants to remain friends with the US unless the US drives it away.’ But he also warned that: ‘Should US policy change, and should we seek to squeeze Pakistan, there would be difficulties. . .

But the US-Pakistan relationship was unravelling steadily as other concerns intruded. The US was becoming embroiled in a draining conflict in South East Asia and was unhappy that Pakistan did not provide troops for the Vietnam war. It also found India to be a better prospect than Pakistan as an economic partner and a potential challenger to China.

Pakistan was focusing more on building economic and political ties with China, and Kashmir loomed large as an unfinished business from partition. It was unhappy with the lack of concrete US pressure on India to resolve this conflict. Its leadership was also aware of India’s growing military strength especially after the influx of Western arms in the wake of the Sino-Indian conflict.  Pakistan’s military had acquired new and improved weapon systems from the US and felt confident that it had a strong deterrent force, should India proceed to exert hegemony in the region. But the increased military force of the Indians created its own dynamic, militarily and politically in Pakistan.

Courtesy: Excerpts from Crossed Swords by Shuja Nawaz, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, 2008.

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