Pakistan-US relation- Bells are not ringing

Pak-US transactional relationship has never transformed into strategic relationship

By Muhammad Ragheeb

Pakistan US relations can best be characterized as similar to the relations between a person and his in laws in a traditional Pakistani household. From the stellar highs of the 1980’s when there were only lavish praises of Pakistan’s supporting role in the Afghan war to being labeled a pariah state and sanctioned in the 1990’s, it has been a relationship with highs matching the peaks of the Himalayas and lows touching bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

Post 9/11 and the changed security situation in the world, the US has for the past 20 years viewed Pakistan from the prism of Afghanistan and the fight against terrorism and Taliban. Pakistan’s geostrategic importance as well as the links between key Afghan players and Pakistan’s security establishment have ensured that the US has always engaged with us for various purposes, ranging from setting up bases, using our sea and land routes to Afghanistan, utilizing Pakistani airspace for aerial campaigns and logistical purposes to coordinating with Pakistani intelligence agencies for capturing and eliminating senior Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership.

In exchange for our support for its Afghanistan campaign Pakistan has been provided with billions of dollars of economic and military aid, as well as preferential treatment such as advantageous free trade agreements and being designated a major Non- NATO ally of the United States. All through this however the nature of this relationship has been transactional for the most part rather than strategic.

This transactional relationship has never blossomed into a strategic relationship, owing to US placing greater importance on ties with India as well as due to the distrust in US political and intelligence circles about Pakistan’s true intentions in Afghanistan, where it has been accused by US officials of secretly supporting the Taliban.

With US forces now withdrawing from Afghanistan altogether by September 11 and the new administration of Joe Biden in place, it is very likely that a shift may occur in US Pakistan relations, one that will have significant impact on Pakistan’s economy and security both.

Firstly, the new Biden administration seems least interested in opening deep diplomatic channels with Pakistan as can be witnessed from the lack of contact between Prime Minister Imran Khan and US president Joe Biden for the past seven months since the latter has been in charge. Contacts between senior civil and military officials have occurred with most recent meeting of national security advisers of both countries in Geneva but so far things have not moved to head of state level contact.

This in no part is due to lack of effort from the Pakistani side which has been requesting constantly for a telephonic conversation to discuss the Afghan situation at such a level but to no avail. A further sign of the Biden administration’s reluctance in engaging deeply in Pakistan can be seen from its acceptance of India’s proposal to not include Pakistan in the recently held UNSC security meeting on Afghanistan’s situation.

Pakistan’s government and security establishment have always highlighted the importance of Pakistan towards any resolution of the security situation in Afghanistan, but it seems the Biden administration does not believe this to be the case anymore and felt no need to hear the view point being espoused by Pakistan, focusing instead on the view point of the Indian and Afghan government. A similar situation was also witnessed earlier when a security conference being arranged by Pakistan had to be indefinitely postponed as the Afghan government refused to take part in it, probably with the tacit approval of the US government.

Another key issue which recently came up was about Pakistan giving airbases to US forces for providing aerial, intelligence and reconnaissance support to Afghan forces. A lot of applause was raised in the media about Prime Minister Imran Khan saying “Absolutely Not” to US proposal of reviving old agreements for utilization of Pakistani Air bases.

However, US officials have recently indicated and are apparent as well by the air support being provided recently by the US air force to Afghanistan that Pakistan has agreed to this proposal and Pakistan’s airspace is being used to launching air attacks against the Taliban.

 All these events point towards the Biden administration not willing to engage with Pakistan any more than it has to and to keep the nature of the relationship transactional rather than strategic, focused through the prism of Afghanistan as it has done for the past two decades.

The US seems willing to pay for bases but not to give Pakistan a major stake in the Afghan peace process, instead preferring its allies inside Afghanistan and India to be more actively involved. However despite this unwillingness to engage with Pakistan, the US so far seems careful not to take ties as low as in the 1990’s when Pakistan was sanctioned and is most likely to continue a certain level of engagement to achieve its objectives in Afghanistan.

It is however quite likely that the US may not be as interested as it used to be in showering us with financial largesse as it did post 9/11 and instead will likely keep putting pressure on Pakistan through FATF and at the same time offer some incentives to us to ensure proper “behavior”, as per its carrot and stick policy.

 As the geostrategic significance of Pakistan for US after its troops withdrawal continues to vane,  a bumpy road lies ahead in which Pakistan will have to carefully wade through the murky waters so as not to antagonize the US too much while ensuring that its strategic interests in Afghanistan and economic interests at home are not compromised.

One can only hope that our leadership has the capacity and more so the capability to achieve this balance. The United States continues to be an important economic and geostrategic partner of Pakistan and it is in our best interests to keep this relationship intact if we are to meet our economic, diplomatic and strategic objectives.

                                                         Muhammad Ragheeb



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