[Analytics] Pakistan and the United States are turning into strangers

Pakistani PM Imrah Khan. Photo: Pakistan Today. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Wading through Pakistan-US relations and keeping them on track, even at the best of the times, is a challenge. The nature of and the confusion emanating from the American withdrawal from Afghanistan has further exposed the brittleness of this relationship. The Taliban victory is seriously testing Pakistan’s long fraught bilateral relationship with America. Sajjad Ashraf specially for the East Asia Forum.

As far back as the 1950s, the interests of the US-Pakistan relationship were only partially served when ‘each side used the other to advance its own agenda that impacted negatively on other’s interests’ writes Tauqir Hussain, a former Pakistani diplomat. Consequently, every time the United States’ immediate needs were met, Pakistan was jettisoned. This occurred most notably after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 when the United States imposed nuclear-related sanctions on Pakistan.

Now, the Biden administration has noticeably turned away from Pakistan again. Washington has chosen to remain barely on talking terms with Islamabad since withdrawing from Afghanistan last summer.

The United States continues to blame Pakistan’s military for supporting non-state actors, including the Taliban. And yet every American dignitary visiting Pakistan makes a beeline to pay a courtesy call on the chief of army staff and only meets the civilian leadership as a formality. While this may indicate that the United States courts those who deliver for their agenda, it has the effect of downplaying the civilian leadership in the face of the military’s domineering presence in Pakistan.

A sizeable number of US policy makers are revisiting the United States’ relations with Pakistan. Both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley assured Congress that the administration is looking at the role Pakistan played during the past years and what role the United States would want it to play in the future. Twenty-two Republican lawmakers have proposed a bill in Congress that includes an assessment of support by the government of Pakistan for the Taliban between 2001 and 2020.

Wendy Sherman, the deputy secretary of state and the highest placed US official to visit Pakistan since Biden took over, made it all plain in October 2021. Departing from Mumbai for Pakistan, in an answer to a journalist’s question, she said ‘we don’t see ourselves building our broad relationship with Pakistan and we have no interest in returning to the days of a hyphenated India, Pakistan’. She added that her trip to Pakistan was aimed at accomplishing a ‘specific and narrow purpose’ — referring to Afghanistan.

There is a near unanimous view in Pakistan that instead of owning up to its own flawed policy and botched execution of the Afghan campaign, the United States finds it convenient to scapegoat Pakistan. US policy still looks at Pakistan through an Afghan prism and wants Pakistan for a specific purpose of over the horizon counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Pakistan seeks broad based relations focusing on geo-economics.

This short termism towards Pakistan is the biggest complaint against the United States. Strangely, Pakistan’s policy planners, though they understand that US policy preferences lie elsewhere, continue to cling to their desire to remain part of the America driven world.

The United States also seems annoyed that Prime Minister Imran Khan has applauded the Taliban victory and, in his typical candidness, described Pakistan’s service provider relationship to the US as ‘lopsided’.

Now that the foreign policy priorities of Biden administration are clear, there is little likelihood of a significant shift in its stance towards Pakistan. Similarly, it is now wrong for the United States to expect that Pakistan would remain a service provider state and sacrifice its vital security interests.

The much-changed geo-political realities and increasing alignment between China and Pakistan also casts a shadow over US policy towards Pakistan. The United States has not made its annoyance with Pakistan signing up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) a secret. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is the largest project of the BRI at US$62 billion. Its completion will free Chinese energy supplies from the choke points of Hormuz and Malacca. As the United States courted India, Pakistan, by necessity, got closer to China. In the face of US embargoes, Pakistan is now almost entirely dependent upon China for military supplies.

Pakistan has multiple interests tied to relations with the United States, outside of strategic interests. A nuclear armed state of over 220 million people cannot just be wished away. The United States should realise the need and benefit of relations with Pakistan.

Sajjad Ashraf served as an adjunct professor Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore from 2009 to 2017. He was a member of Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973 to 2008 and served as ambassador to several countries.

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