Dr Huma Baqai

23rd Oct, 2022. 10:20 am

Is the US taking a U-turn?

‘Pakistan – United States relations are a textbook case of political realism’. Since 1947, the construct of convergence between Pakistan and the US has been ambiguous. The engagement from both sides is largely compulsion driven. On more than one occasion, both states have pursued divergent interest trajectories sabotaging each other’s interests at regional and international levels. ‘Uneasy marriage to odd couple of modern international relations’ is how the relationship is referred to. This roller coaster alliance is the direct outcome of the lack of a shared threat perception. Pakistan at best is, and was, a utility partner for the US; when the utility ends, the relationship pauses.

Recently, the US President Joe Biden indulged in uncalled-for public criticism of Pakistan at a very inappropriate moment. He called Pakistan ‘one of the most dangerous nations in the world’ and went on to raise concerns about its nuclear safety protocols. The remarks were off the cuff, made while commenting on the US foreign policy during a private Democratic Party fundraiser in California. It may have gone unnoticed had the White House not published a transcript of his comments. However, in some ways, it was a continuation of how Biden has treated Pakistan since his coming to power. The relationship between the two countries has not been moving forward as observers believe that the US priorities may have changed after its exit from Afghanistan. The infamous phone call to the Former Prime Minister Imran Khan never happened. In October 2021, the first high official visit under President Biden’s Administration of the US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman was also not very pleasant, where she categorically said in India that the visit to Pakistan was for a ‘very specific and narrow purpose’.

There was across the board outrage in Pakistan against Biden’s recent comment. Nuclear assets are Pakistan’s hot button and a red line. Pakistan’s foreign office had summoned the US ambassador Donald Blome after the unwarranted comment. Pakistan’s foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari said that he was ‘surprised’ by Biden’s statement. “I believe this is exactly the sort of misunderstanding that is created when there is a lack of engagement,” he added.

What made this particular remark perhaps more painful was the implicit understanding that the relations are perhaps on the mend after a considerable gap. The recent week-long visit by the Foreign Minister Mr. Bilawal Bhutto and Army Chief General Bajwa to Washington was seen by many as an indication of improved ties. These were preceded by the sale of maintenance stores for the US delivered F-16s followed by the US Ambassador to Islamabad visiting Azad Kashmir. The Indian objections to the maintenance stores were also ignored. The US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said, “This is about sustaining an existing program and not adding a new one, we have an obligation to do that.” He added that the US relations with Pakistan are independent of ties with India. This was perhaps a recognition of Pakistan providing its airspace for the US to target Al-Zawahiri, the grapevine is that ISI shared intelligence for the same. The second was Pakistan in collaboration with the United Kingdom supplying 122MM military ammunition to Ukraine.

Pakistan’s strategic location bordering Central and West Asia, China, Iran, and Afghanistan keeps beckoning the US. Thus, despite various highs and lows in the US-Pakistan diplomatic ties the relationship never acquires a low, where there is zero connect and sooner or later some damage control is done to save the relationship from a complete collapse. Same was the case this time post President Biden’s undiplomatic comment and a strong protest from Pakistan, we saw some comments in favour of Pakistan with some even calling it a U-turn by the US.  Vedant Patel, US state department spokesperson, said that “the United States is confident of Pakistan’s commitment and its ability to secure its nuclear arsenal,” in a press briefing in Washington. Even the Democrat Senator Chris Van Hollen clarified the remarks of the US President Joe Biden about Pakistan’s nuclear capability, he said “I don’t know what made President Biden say [what he said about Pakistan], but I don’t believe this was intended to hurt US-Pakistan relations in any way.” The Senator added that his [Biden’s] statement was spontaneous and that there was no shift in the US policy towards Pakistan.

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This of course does not negate the fact that there is serious scepticism in the US regarding Pakistan. It is a country that is tolerated more than accommodated. The Strategy Paper 2021 and 2022 does not even mention Pakistan as an ally. The lens of Afghanistan with which Pakistan will continue to be viewed, has been complicated by Pakistan’s strategic convergence both with China and Russia. We have a love-hate relationship with the US for seven decades now. The cost for Pakistan has been critically high.

Whether the United States openly acknowledges it or not, the US has been able to achieve all its strategic goals in the region with Pakistan’s help, including its most recent unceremonious, but safe, exit from Afghanistan. The Biden administration’s engagement with Pakistan to date pre and post withdrawal has almost exclusively focused on Afghanistan. However, Pakistan wants the relationship to be defined more broadly, based and rooted in geo-economics, trade, investment, and connectivity. The US is not receptive of Pakistan’s geo-economic pitch. The blame game and scapegoating Pakistan is not helping the situation on the ground nor the relationship.

Some facts cannot be overlooked by Pakistan also; the US is Pakistan’s largest export market, and it’s also been a leading investor for the past 20 years. In the last fiscal year, the direct investment in Pakistan has increased by 50% percent. The decision-making elite of Pakistan is very pro-US. Additionally, the US government has provided more than $56 million in flood relief and humanitarian assistance to Pakistan and hopes to continue its support for Pakistan in flood relief efforts.

Pakistan realises the importance of its relationship with Washington, but at the same time has policy options now, that never existed in the past, allowing it to revisit its relations with the US. Even back in August 2017, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa in his conversation with the US Ambassador David Hale had said, “Pakistan does not want material or financial assistance from the US, but needs to be trusted and treated with respect.”

The relationship right now is that of a patron-client, it must progress to a partnership, which is more inclusive in nature. Pakistan’s shift from geopolitics to geo-economics, should receive a positive reception from Washington; right now it is not factored into the relationship at all. The fault also lies on Pakistan’s side, which has not built up the requisite infrastructure for this shift to be realised tangibly.

 

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The writer is Rector MiTE

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