Islamabad is hoping to rebuild bilateral relations around trade and the economy. But for Washington, Pakistan might remain just a cog in the wheel in its efforts to counter Beijing in South Asia and beyond.
Immediately after assuming charge as the US ambassador in Pakistan, Donald Blome assured a two-way communication with Islamabad, promising to “listen to and understand” and “convey that understanding” to Washington.
His comments go beyond mere diplomatic sweet talk. As the first full-time American envoy in Islamabad after a gap of four years, Blome has his plate full.
Following the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, US-Pakistan ties underwent a major transition. The Biden administration blamed Islamabad for Washington’s defeat. Pakistan, in turn, accused the US of making Islamabad the scapegoat for its own policy failures in Afghanistan.
Since then, the US and Pakistan have managed to reset their ties to an extent by putting the bitterness surrounding the US exit from Afghanistan behind them.
The new framework of reinvigorated Washington-Islamabad relations has to be viewed in the context of the running rivalry and competition between the US and China in South Asia. Islamabad wants to situate its ties with Washington on trade and economy.
The US, on the other hand, is viewing the newfound limited engagement with Pakistan through China’s lens. Pakistan’s desire to become a bridge between Washington and Beijing has left it stranded between the two competing superpowers.
In the last four decades, it is the third occasion that US-Pakistan relations are at a crossroads. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has given both countries a fresh opportunity to reconfigure their relations.
For the last 40 years, Afghanistan had been the defining feature of US-Pakistan ties. The 1979 Russian invasion of Afghanistan gave bilateral ties a new impetus to ally against communism. Similarly, the US intervention in Afghanistan following the September 2001 attacks made counterterrorism the central pillar of bilateral relations.
During former prime minister Imran Khan’s rule, US-Pakistan ties nosedived, even though Pakistan facilitated the 2020 Washington-Taliban deal and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The Biden administration accused Pakistan of undermining US goals in Afghanistan. On the other hand, frustrated by the US blame game, Khan hit back with statements like, “Afghans have broken the chains of slavery.”
Biden’s snub to Khan by not calling him after assuming office further strained an already fragile relationship. Likewise, Khan’s decision to blame his ouster in a parliamentary vote of no-confidence in April on an alleged US-sponsored plot for defying Western pressure to visit Russia took bilateral ties to an all-time low.
Pakistan’s new Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s maiden two-day trip to Washington in May revived the bilateral relations. Bilawal’s visit helped in renegotiating the International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s suspended programme. Pakistan has reached a broad understanding with the IMF and a staff-level agreement has been signed.
Likewise, Bilawal convinced the US and other Western capitals to support Pakistan’s bid to get off the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)’s grey list after achieving full compliance with the two action plans. In June, FATF’s plenary session in Germany accepted Pakistan’s claims and decided to initiate the on-site verification process which, if successful, will pave the way for its removal from the grey list in October.
Despite being in a rebuilding phase, there is still a fundamental disconnect in US-Pakistan ties. Islamabad, under its new geo-economic vision, wants trade and economy to be the new fulcrum of bilateral relations. On the contrary, Washington is looking at them through the lens of its rivalry with Beijing.
Pakistan is trying to stay away from bloc politics and act as a bridge between the US and China. However, this is easier said than done. Instead of a bridge, Pakistan is increasingly finding itself sandwiched in the US-China great power competition.
Though the US and Pakistan have agreed to put the acrimony of the Afghan debacle behind them, the shadow of Afghanistan still looms over the bilateral relations due to the residual threat of transnational terrorism and the fragility of the Afghan state. The US has assessed that the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) could launch international terrorist attacks from Afghanistan in one year, while Al-Qaeda would gain the same capability in two years. The Taliban’s continued relationship with Al-Qaeda and the inability to effectively counter ISKP’s presence in Afghanistan further complicates this challenge.
The US retaliatory drone strike in Kabul to ISKP’s Kabul Airport attack last August, which killed civilians, exposed the limitation of the much-touted over-the-horizon counter-terrorism capability without adequate ground intelligence. The US and Pakistan have a shared interest in denying space to transnational terrorist groups in Afghanistan. Hence to overcome the existing intelligence gaps, some military-to-military cooperation is conceivable. Likewise, both states have overlapping interests in averting the collapse of the Afghan economy, which is teetering on the brink of a humanitarian disaster.
The formation of an inclusive and broad-based government as well as respect for women’s right to education and work also give common grounds to both countries to work together in Afghanistan.
Though Pakistan has cultivated its long-term strategic interests with China, and the US is courting India for its China-containment policy in the Indo-Pacific region, there is a lot of space between the two extremes for US-Pakistan ties to survive.
However, it will require skillfull diplomacy and tightrope walking from Pakistan to balance its dealings with the US and China. Despite visible improvement because of a successful reset, US-Pakistan ties will remain transactional, issue-specific, and prone to reverses.
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