On the edge: resetting US-Pakistan relations


THE US-Pakistan relations are at crossroads. Policy planners on both sides have no clear vision of future ties, which they are struggling to define. On the US’ front, the challenge has been President Joe Biden’s ongoing search for a foreign policy that strikes a balance between President Barack Obama’s policy of vacillating engagement and isolation and Donald Trump’s naked pursuit of ‘America First’, as well as finding ways to connect US foreign policy with Biden’s own ambitious domestic agenda. Where Pakistan figures in all this is vague.

In Pakistan, there are growing sentiments that the country’s mounting economic difficulties, rising challenges to its internal stability and continuing threats to its external security require good relations with Washington. But there is uncertainty about the American response.

The present phase of the on-again, off-again US-Pakistan relationship began after the 2011 killing of Osama Bin Laden by American forces. This episode marked the end of Washington’s resolve to fight the Afghanistan war and the beginning of the end of the meaningful US-Pakistan partnership in a war that largely defined their restored ties after 9/11. The years that followed were full of mutual recrimination.

American trust in Pakistan worsened due to the unfounded public suspicion of the Pakistani authorities being complicit in sheltering bin Laden. This included the military and intelligence agencies’ unhappiness with the activities of the Haqqani Network, which was believed to be operating out of Pakistan. The blame game was aggravated by the US’ extraordinary relationship with India and its emerging China containment policy, given the clearest expression in the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy issued in December 2017.

The US and India’s policies towards China converged, as did their security concerns about continued instability in Afghanistan and shared threat perceptions linked to the extremist and militant organisations in the region. All this culminated in a common focus on their opposition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and both coordinated strategies to coerce or isolate Pakistan.

Washington’s failure in Afghanistan had made Pakistan’s legitimate assistance in the American war effort, from which it grievously suffered, pointless. Pakistan’s successful efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table had also become irrelevant. The deal Islamabad achieved brought the Taliban to power, leading to a chaotic and humiliating US exit from Kabul. Washington vented its anger on Islamabad by resuscitating the blame on alleged Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan for the failure of the Afghanistan war.1 Then Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s jubilation over the Taliban victory,2 and his criticism of US policies on American media network,3 added insult to injury.

On 13 September 2021, at a House  of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken was forced to sit through remarks from Congressmen over what they thought to be the negative role of Pakistan in the war.4 Blinken was advised that the US relationship with Pakistan needed to be re-evaluated.

While going with the flow of Congressional grievances and agreeing that the relationship with Pakistan needed to be reassessed, Blinken left open the possibility that this reset did not necessarily have to be negative. He said that reassessment is ‘one of the things we’re going to be looking at in the days, and weeks ahead – the role that Pakistan has played over the last 20 years but also the role we would want to see it play in the coming years and what it will take for it to do that.’5 His response reflects that the US did not want to burn its bridges with Pakistan. Furthermore, Pakistan is also keen to revive the relationship. After deciding to skip Biden’s Summit for Democracy, Islamabad followed up with the offer  to be a bridge between the US and China, signalling its desire to be in both camps and maintain cordial  relations with both powers.6

The fact is that Pakistan has no permanent importance for Washington, nor does it have any lasting place in US foreign policy. Its significance has varied according to fluctuating US interests in the region, positioning it sometimes alongside Washington and sometimes against it. It is essentially a need-based relationship, and as its previous highs and lows demonstrate, you never know when that need will arise again. That is why both sides have been walking back from the brink and looking for ways to reset the relationship at a sustainable and low expectation levels.

For the past two decades, the relationship derived its strengths and weaknesses primarily from the Afghanistan war. With the US’ withdrawal, Pakistan and the US are searching for a new meaning to animate bilateral relations. Divergent influences will shape and impact the trajectory of the bilateral relationship: unfavourably by US-India ties; positively by Pakistan’s potential involvement in Afghanistan; un-predictably by US-China tensions; and unexpectedly by domestic political compulsions in America.

As to the broader elements of the emerging American foreign policy that provides the overall backdrop of the relationship, several factors might be worth mentioning. Biden’s presumptive foreign policy, which he terms as being for ‘the middle class’, would mean that the US is focused on protecting American jobs and factories by restoring balance in international trade and investment relations, strengthening manufacturing, developing supply chains, and safeguarding American technological superiority. The policy also includes looking out for new business opportunities abroad for American companies.

This would be Biden’s version of ‘America First’. But, unlike Trump, Biden will pursue a traditionalist and elitist foreign policy that seeks the reassertion of global leadership and the strengthening of Washington’s traditional alliances. Though the commitment will remain rhetorical  and selective, there will also be an emphasis on values like human rights and democracy. All three foreign policy strands have become entwined with American domestic politics and come to find a strong focus on counter balancing China and Russia.

The US has two principal concerns in South Asia – China, on the one hand, and Afghanistan and the related issue of terrorism’s threat to Washington and global security, on the other. For the China problem, the US primarily needs help from India, and for the other concerns, it largely requires assistance from Pakistan. The US also has a stake in the stability of the region, and cooperation from both India and Pakistan is critical to this goal.

As for Afghanistan and terrorism, Washington has grown tired of carrying the weight alone. It is likely to outsource the task to Pakistan. Notably, the  US’ haphazard withdrawal from Afghanistan has had a big backlash  for Biden domestically, and Pakistan’s role in the war became contentious.
He is thus determined to shift the conversation away from Afghanistan by avoiding public discussion of the conflict and steering clear of anything that could stoke memory of the war, like US-Pakistan cooperation. That is probably why he did not call Khan when the latter was in power.

Biden would be pleased if Pakistan and European allies could cooperate and take the lead in mitigating the current humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, with Washington leading from behind. He would also like Islamabad to exert pressure on the Taliban on women’s rights and inclusivity as well as by helping with the remaining evacuation of foreigners. The US also needs Pakistan’s help in getting the Taliban to fight and weaken, if not eliminate, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Khorasan Province and other affiliated terrorist organisations, for which Pakistan’s military and intelligence assistance will be essential.

General Frank McKenzie, head of the US Central Command, alluded to the need for one particular area of cooperation by Pakistan in his congressional testimony, ‘Over the last 20 years, we’ve been able to use what we call the air boulevard to go in over western Pakistan and that’s become something that’s vital to us, as well as certain landlines of communication.’7 Separately, both the Central Intelligence Agency head and the Federal Bureau of Investigation director have also been saying that with the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US has lost the ability to ‘collect and act on terrorist threats’, suggesting the need for Pakistan’s help.

Pakistan is also geopolitically significant to the US. Besides, Washington has some economic interest in Pakistan, not so much on the account of potential connectivity amongst the Central-South Asian economies rather to avail opportunities for US business and investment to enter Pakistan. The American private sector is gradually opening up to relations with Pakistan, partly to avoid leaving the field clear only to China and perhaps partly to test the limits and potential of working alongside the CPEC. Washington might also like to see if offering Pakistan an American alternative could contain Pakistan-China relations.

What does Pakistan seek from the US? Pakistan knows that the days of a high profile aid relationship are over. It now desires investment, trade and assistance with international financial institutions, particularly the International Monetary Fund. The US is Pakistan’s largest trading partner and its largest export destination. Pakistan also has financial vulnerabilities, such as being on the Financial Action Task Force grey list, where America holds a whip hand. Additionally, Islamabad-Washington ties are also looked upon as a moderating influence on India’s Pakistan policy.

The fact remains that China cannot, and perhaps does not, want to fulfil all of Pakistan’s needs, given its multiple challenges. Pakistan will face uncertain headwinds over Afghanistan’s future, continued pressures from an assertive and dominant India and internal and cross-border dangers from terrorism and extremism. Efforts to stabilise the economy, which is in a dire state, will present their own set of difficulties. Islamabad will have to build amenable relations with the major powers to successfully navigate these challenges.

Pakistan has recently been trying to chart a new course in its foreign policy and the long-existing governance paradigm. It began with the February 2020 ceasefire agreement with India along the Line of Control in Kashmir and conducting back-channel conversations with India. On 18 March 2021, at Pakistan’s first-ever public ‘Security Dialogue’, Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa stated that it is ‘our desire to change the narrative of geo-political contestation into geo-economic integration.’ He also extended an olive branch to India. More recently in January 2022, Pakistan has announced its National Security Policy, which places economic interest as the most critical dimension of its national interest.8 

Washington cannot afford to ignore Islamabad. The latter has an important role in advancing or complicating US interests in the future. Its relevance to Washington stems from its strategic location at the crossroads of Afghanistan, Russia, China, India and Iran. Further, Pakistan’s close connections with China have a direct impact on the American Indo-Pacific strategy, and India-Pakistan tensions continue to undermine Delhi’s capability to balance Beijing.

Bipolarity and nuclear weapons act as guardrails against conflict, as does economic interdependence.9 Washington can thus live with Islamabad’s good relations with Beijing since it recognises that isolating Pakistan would only lead to tightening its embrace of China. Moreover, targetting China-Pakistan relations would not serve American interests. It will have little effect on China, but it will destabilise Pakistan. And an unstable Pakistan, the US fears, would foster militancy, endanger its nuclear assets, and raise the likelihood of confrontation with India, jeopardising America’s security and strategic interests.10 Overall, a Pakistan that is economically and politically stable may be instrumental to the US better realising its goals in the region.11

Pakistan wants a broad-based relationship, but the US is not interested. During her visit to India in October 2021, Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman said that Washington was looking for a relationship with Islamabad that served only a ‘narrow and specific’ purpose.12 However, a lot has transpired since then. There appears to be some progress in meeting each other’s expectations.

Pakistan may have played its cards well by skipping the Summit for Democracy and then offering to be a bridge between the US and China. It signalled Pakistan’s desire to maintain good relations with the US while simultaneously highlighting the strategic nature of Pakistan-China relations, the richness of whose substance was reaffirmed during Khan’s visit to China in early February 2022.

It is no coincidence that right during the visit, the US State Department spokesman Ned Price remarked, ‘Pakistan is a strategic partner of the United States. We have an important relationship with the government in Islamabad, and it’s a relationship that we value across a number of fronts.’13 These words have been rare indeed in recent decades. He added that Washington is not asking countries to choose between the US and China.

Could the US’ relationship with Pakistan be that missing piece of the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy and China policy, by which it could exert influence over Pakistan to ensure that the country’s actions in the region do not undermine American interests? If so, this would apply not just to China but also to Pakistan’s growing relations with Russia Both factors could be driving the State Department’s change of heart towards Pakistan.

However, engagement between Washington and Islamabad will not come without conditionalities and pressures, including some which Pakistan will have to accommodate for its own sake and the sake of its relations with the US, without compromising its vital interests, including its strategic ties with China.

Footnotes :

1. Max Zahn with Andy Serwer, ‘Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal: Afghanistan War was a “Failure”’, 13 October 2021, Yahoo Finance News. https://sg.finance.yahoo.com/news/retired-us-general-afghanistan-war-was-a-failure 144647839.html?soc_src=social-sh&soc_trk=tw&tsrc=twtr

2. Maroosha Muzaffar, ‘Taliban Have Broken “the Shackles of Slavery,” Says Pakistan PM Imran Khan’, Independent, 17 August 2021. https://www.independent.co.uk/asia/south-asia/taliban-pakistan-imran-khan-afghanistan-b1903821.html

3. PBS interview with Judy Woodruff. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/interview/judy-woodruff/

4. Patricia Zengerle and Humeyra Pamuk, ‘Blinken Says U.S. Will Assess Pakistan Ties Over Afghanistan’s Future’, Reuters, 2021. https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/blinken-says-us-will-assess-pakistan-ties-over-afghanistans-future-2021-09-13/

5. Ibid.

6.  Naveed Siddiqui, ‘Pakistan to Engage with US on Democracy at “Opportune Time in Future”’, Dawn, 8 December 2021. https://www.dawn.com/news/1662654

7.  US Senate testimony on withdrawal from Afghanistan, September 2021.

8. Farrukh Saleem, ‘National Economic Interest’, The News, January 2022. https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/929195-national-economic-interest

9. Cliff Kupchan, ‘Bipolarity is Back: Why it Matters’, Washington Quarterly, February 2022.

10. Anwar Iqbal, ‘US Generals Express Concern Over Pakistan’s Nuclear Arsenal in Wake of Taliban Takeover of Afghanistan’, Dawn, September 2021. https://www.dawn.com/news/1649127

11. Marvin G. Weinbaum & Syed Mohammed Ali, ‘Seizing the Moment for Change: Pathways to a Sustainable US-Pakistan Relationship’, Middle East Institute Policy Brief on US Pakistan Relations, March 2020.

12. Michael Kugelman, ‘Washington’s Divergent Diplomacy in South Asia’, Foreign Policy South Asia Brief, October 2021.

13. Anwar Iqbal, ‘Pakistan Still a Strategic Partner’, Dawn, February 2022. https://www.dawn.com/ news/1673142