Friend or Foe?

The war on terror has made an ally of Pakistan. But what kind of ally?

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

In the eyes of many Americans, Pakistan has long evinced a split personality–hunting down al-Qaeda one moment, peddling nuclear secrets the next. On Wednesday, the Bush administration endorsed the “friend” point of view, when it officially granted Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) status to Pakistan. But the announcement doesn’t do much to dispel the lingering question: What kind of ally is Pakistan, anyways?

By offering the country MNNA status, the Bush administration clearly hopes to boost the Pakistan government in its fight against al Qaeda and Taliban fighters within its own borders. (Calculating cynics take note: A major al-Qaeda capture in Pakistan would certainly liven up Bush’s sickly poll numbers.) Crucially, the status renders Pakistan eligible for new and previously unavailable weapons–such as depleted uranium ammunition–from U.S. army stockpiles, along with new government-backed loans to build up its military capability. Other nations with MNNA status include South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Egypt.

India–which is not an MNNA –will no doubt feel some unease over the boost to their arch-rival. In all likelihood, though, the new alliance will not disrupt the balance of power in Central Asia. Pakistan will not be granted mutual defense and security guarantees, as NATO allies are. In the event of a war between Pakistan and India, the U.S. would almost certainly refrain from taking sides, and instead try to broker peace from a neutral position.

Nevertheless, some Indian officials have expressed private concern, predicting that the new inflow of weaponry could lead to an unhealthy arms race between the two countries. Indian leaders may also worry that some of the arms could find their way into the hands of Pakistani fighters within the disputed Kashmir region.

From an American point of view, Pakistan’s new status will likely rekindle the debate over the country’s commitment to the war on terrorism. Just this past Tuesday, the 9/11 Commission’s report cited evidence to back up the widespread and persistent suspicion that Pakistan collaborated with the Taliban before September 11:

‘The Taliban’s ability to provide Bin Laden a haven in the face of international pressure and UN sanctions was significantly facilitated by Pakistani support,’ the report said. ‘Pakistan benefited from the Taliban-Al Qaeda relationship, as Bin Laden’s camps trained and equipped fighters for Pakistan’s ongoing struggle with India over Kashmir.’

It’s unclear to what extent Pakistan has changed its ways in the time since President Bush declared, after September 11, that countries were either with the U.S. or against it. On the one hand, news headlines blare daily reports of Pakistan’s purported military crackdown on al Qaeda fighters within its own borders. On the other hand, the Pakistani government has been far from forthright about its actions. Around the time when Pakistan first learned from Colin Powell that it would receive MNNA status, the government eagerly proclaimed that it had cornered Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s second-in-command. The announcement later proved false, leaving some to wonder if it was merely a hoax to impress the Bush administration. More recently, The New York Times questioned whether Pakistan was simply going through the motions in its hunt for al-Qaeda and other Islamic militant groups:

One Pakistani military official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the government was taking advantage of the American focus on Iraq to delay acting in the tribal areas. The official said the government hoped to wait out American demands for action until the presidential election was over and American attention and pressure might drop.

The Times also notes that militant groups in Pakistan continue to pull in new recruits.

On top of all this, the U.S. government has yet to resolve the questions surrounding the Pakistani government’s knowledge of, and involvement in, the selling of nuclear secrets to rogue nations by one of its top scientists, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan. Back in March, Khan told The Guardian that the government had been fully aware of everything:

The disgraced founder of Pakistan’s nuclear programme has informed investigators that he supplied rogue states with nuclear technology with the full knowledge of the country’s ruling military elite, including President Pervez Musharraf, a friend of the nuclear scientist was reported as saying yesterday…

According to an unnamed friend who spoke to the Associated Press, the nuclear scientist last week told government investigators: “What ever I did, it was in the knowledge of the bosses.”

Still, in the time since Colin Powell delivered Pakistan a light slap on the wrist in February of 2004, the Bush administration has appeared content to let the matter drop.

For his part, Pakistan’s president, Gen. Perez Musharraf, has shown only a moderate inclination to shake things up and reform Pakistan. He has narrowly escaped several recent assassination attempts, and is understandably wary of angering too many Islamist groups at home. To make matters more difficult, the ranks of Pakistan’s army contain many fundamentalists, and the intelligence agency, the ISI, has extensive links to the Taliban and other militant groups. Brian Maher recently described Musharraf’s precarious position:

He still cannot count on the loyalty of the military and the ISI, despite his attempts to eradicate suspect elements. If he sent the army into the tribal areas [to fight militant groups like al Qaeda], he runs the risk of defections in the ranks and widespread rebellion, which would threaten the survival of the regime.

Indeed, the pressure on Musharraf comes not only from within his government. Popular rallies decrying the president’s pro-American policies have become increasingly common; Musharraf’s new alliance with the U.S. may draw further denunciations.

Officially, Pakistan is now an ally of the U.S. But that is still a long way from being our friend.


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaires wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2023 demands.

payment methods


Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2023 demands.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.