Rightsizing Pak-US ties

With the resurgence of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan, the regional landscape that has dominated the last two decades of US-Pakistan relations shifting significantly. The Biden administration’s focus on competition with China and increasing climate concerns, coupled with the Pakistani government’s desire to shift focus to geo-economic ties with the US offer potential new parameters for the bilateral ties. In retrospect, Pakistan and the US have been allies since the 1950s and the relationship has gone through many twists and turns, President Eisenhower once famously described Pakistan as America’s most allied ally in Asia.

Ever since 9/11 Pak-US bilateral ties that whirl around Afghanistan and unfolding situation with the subtleness in the conflict has defined the content, tone, and context. Therefore, the future relationship cannot be predicted without first looking at the background in which Afghanistan’s situation has evolved and the capacity of both countries to do it right to bring the Afghanistan conflict to a mutually satisfactory conclusion. Since Afghanistan is the primary and principal preoccupation and Washington and Islamabad need to continue bilateral cooperation as there is an opportunity to reframe relations more realistically. At this critical juncture, beyond the Afghanistan war and peace process, there are a host of critical issues that will shape the contours of the relationship in the years ahead, ranging from the US-China competition to strategic stability in South Asia to bilateral cooperation. So far engagement remains on the cautious side; Pakistan has stopped responding to the US carrot and stick tactics.

It now seeks strengthened ties rooted in geo-economics. President Joe Biden still has not somewhat enigmatically interacted with Prime Minister Khan. But the US Pakistan engagement continues, mainly in Afghanistan. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi have spoken multiple times Central Intelligence Agency Director Bill Burns visited Pakistan. Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa has received multiple calls from officials in Washington, including from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. The countries’ national security advisors have met twice in person, and the ISI chief visited Washington.

From Pakistan’s perspective, it has indicated repeatedly that it wants the relationship to be defined more broadly than concerning Afghanistan — especially based on “geo-economics,”

its favored current catch-all for trade, investment, and connectivity — and has insisted that it does not want failures in Afghanistan to be blamed on Pakistan, The Biden administration has focused its foreign policy on countering China’s influence worldwide. For its part, Pakistan has a longstanding strategic relationship with its northeastern neighbor, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has only deepened those ties. But, for Islamabad, great power competition is not a zero-sum game. The US should continue its engagement with Pakistan for certain reasons: the less that Washington engages with Pakistan, the more disconnected it will be from the region, and the weaker its influence will be on the situation’s outcome. Any space that the US cedes, whether in its relationship with Pakistan, will be filled chiefly by China, and to some extent Iran and Russia.

Furthermore, Pakistan is the world’s only Muslim-majority country with nuclear weapons and it borders China, India, Iran, and Afghanistan all significant for the US policy in different ways Pakistan straddles South Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East even after withdrawal from Afghanistan those factors would continue to make Pakistan important for US policymakers so at a time when US policy discourses heavily centered on the indo-pacific it would be useful to examine what might be some key areas of collaboration and divergence in the US Pakistan relations.

It is pertinent to mention that, Pakistan has been supportive of the US approach in Afghanistan and has played an important role in fulfilling its military efforts in Afghanistan through the lines of communication and its counterterrorism operations which were closely working together in Pakistan. The US will need to continue to have cross-cutting relationships even as it develops its partnership with India, least for the sake of strategic stability as it played an important role in crisis management between India and Pakistan and such policy imperatives should continue as the relationship should probably head over time.

Pakistan currently foresees bilateral ties beyond then a security prism as policymakers are putting secondary emphasis on security and encounter terrorism aspects whilst the primary focus is on economic, commercial, and people-to-people linkages.

For the past two decades, the ties between two states were driven through security exigencies this is an area that has not been developed over time. And in some ways, Pakistan has fundamentals in terms of economics that make it attractive for American companies should want to invest. Another point, Pakistan and the US must continue their diplomatic engagement with “Troika Plus” for the rehabilitation and economic prosperity of Afghanistan because the other Two member states; Russia China are key actors that would play a decisive role in defining regional security, economic architecture. The “inclusive political settlement,” principle of non-interference in Afghanistan must be adhered to to create conditions for an acceptable peace agreement. Both states should have to develop a right-sized relationship by dropping somewhat redundant narratives that have developed on both sides during their collaborative campaign against WoT.

From Pakistan’s perspective, there is supposed distinction as the US took purely transactional rather than the strategic partner whereas most relations between countries are some combination of transactional and strategic. To some extent strategic concerns may be about the future of Afghanistan, the course and direction of Pakistan’s strategic choices in coming years will also matter to the US. The Washington policymakers are interested to see two things one how Pakistan is going to manage the US-China competition given that it has strong relationships with both where does Pakistan see itself and two of course how is it going to use its relationship with the Taliban government. US policymakers remain skeptical that Pakistan will be able to take a more positive trajectory think they believe it will remain mixed as it has in the last two decades but there is also an acknowledgment that US national security interests are such that will not allow them to ignore Pakistan or not to build a strong relationship. In the future context, the US is likely to put Afghanistan in rare view mirror it’s not it’s going to dominate the immediate term and US should focus the political settlement that should remain a shared priority as Pakistani willingness to help with the political settlement as this is the one place where the US and Pakistan have shared the most convergence of interests.

US acceptance of the Taliban as a legitimate stakeholder in the future of governance in Afghanistan will be a major step forward towards peace, stability and also defining the future trajectory of Pak-US ties. This breakthrough has also led the US to acknowledge and appreciate Pakistan’s role in facilitating a solution to the Afghan imbroglio and to recognize Islamabad as a critical stakeholder in the future of Afghanistan

As far as South Asia’s importance for Washington is concerned, the region is far more relevant to the US for geopolitical, national security, and economic reasons. This requires Washington to invest in wider and longer-term regional engagement in which both Pakistan have a place. The US would presumably deal with Pakistan through a China lens as its competition with Beijing is bipartisan across the board and this strategic misalignment is not something that’s going to go away and India’s strategic alliance with the US is also another reality. There is no doubt that the China factor has become an irritant in Pak- US relations. The growing Chinese power has earned American attention and concerns about the latter are interests in Asia-Pacific, South and Central Asia, and beyond. Under such conditions, the US must shape a productive relationship with Pakistan and as it will be very honest in its approach- China is the compulsion but it continues to want to have a positive relationship with the US.

  • A blend of transactional and strategic approaches would better serve the interests of both states, but at the same time let’s work on some of the fundamental things where both have convergence rather than raising expectations and creating more distrusting the relationship.
  • For a new approach for getting the relationship to work, both countries will have to do more to meet each other somewhere in the middle. The Biden team needs to keep an open mind and look at Pakistan with a broader lens. And if Pakistan does not want strategic concerns to dominate its relationship with the US it needs to offer up something more than words: real economic incentives.
  • With relevance to multilateral cooperation is concerned, The US and Pakistan have worked together for more than 70 years on issues, including energy, economic growth, and inclusion, education, and health. USAID’s current country development cooperation strategy for Pakistan focuses on fostering a more stable, peaceful, and prosperous country. To achieve this, USAID is partnering with Pakistan to increase private-sector-led, inclusive economic growth; and strengthens global health security capacities. This work directly supports Pakistan’s development aspirations, as outlined in Pakistan Vision 2025, and its journey towards sustainable, self-reliant growth and development that needs to further transcend into cooperation.
  • The technology space is one of the increasingly strategic dimensions, and deepening US investments in this area in Pakistan would serve to not only open a new market to US businesses but also ensure that US technology.
  • Identify and incentivize the US private sector investments in water-conserving irrigational technologies working in collaboration with entities like the Foreign Agricultural Service at the United States Department of Agriculture.

US policymakers have often used economic and development aid as the carrot to either compel or entice Pakistan in advancing American geostrategic goals. However, the resulting experience of using financial aid to serve strategic goals delivers short-term results at best. One of the key instruments used by the US is the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank Group. Instead of using financial incentives as the means to secure strategic ends, the US can instead begin viewing trade, investment, and economic cooperation as the underlying basis for developing a durable bilateral relationship with Pakistan. It is in the US interest to enable Pakistan to become economically viable. It should foster a closer economic relationship between the two countries holds not only the promise of benefiting Pakistan but also enabling the US to advance its interests in South and Central Asia.

Despite its significant political and economic difficulties, Pakistan has a growing technology sector. Its youthful population and worldwide diaspora of Pakistani doctors, scientists, academics, and other professionals have become an increasingly important part of the global community

To conclude, paradoxes in the Pakistan-U.S. ties have existed since the very beginning and lie at the core of misperceptions about the relationship. The two countries have had very high-profile relations from time to time, even bearing characteristics of close allies. And yet Pakistan suffered frequent sanctions reserved for adversaries. This is all the more puzzling considering that the Pakistan-US relationship has historically served some of the critical national interests of the two countries and may do so again.

Both states need to learn from their history of relations and adjust according to the vastly changing times. Because of intensifying competition between the U.S. and China, Pakistan’s geopolitical location and close ties with China can work both as an asset and a liability. It depends on what Pakistan makes of it. To be useful to both the U.S. and China, Pakistan has to build internal strength, raise its contribution to peace efforts in the region, help stabilize Afghanistan, and enhance its potential as an economic partner. Ultimately what is good for Pakistan will be good for Pakistan’s US relations. A relationship built on the foundations of economic cooperation and integration can serve as a much more robust and sustainable basis for bilateral engagement. More importantly, such foundations, over the medium to long term, maybe the only path to help ease both countries into more cooperative and mutually beneficial strategic postures.

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About Mushahid Hussain Naqvi 15 Articles
The author is the Digital Editor at The Asian Telegraph and sub-Editor at Melange International Magazine and Research Associate at COPAIR with academic expertise in International Relations.