US President Donald Trump’s January 1 tweet, which accused Pakistan of receiving more than $33 billion in US aid over the last 15 years for “nothing but lies and deceit”, came as a major setback to the already sour Pak-US relations.
Almost four days after the tweet, the Trump administration suspended US security aid to Pakistan. This development was soon followed by the introduction of a bill in parliament that sought an end to US economic aid to Pakistan.
The movers of the bill – Mark Sanford from South Carolina and Thomas Massie from Kentucky – said that the aid cut was aimed at teaching Pakistan a lesson for providing aid to the terrorists – a charge that Pakistan has strongly denied. At the same time, the US Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan clarified during his two-day visit to Kabul that America had no desire to either sever ties with Pakistan or launch any military strikes within its territory.
A follow-up move by the US to place Pakistan on the Financial Action Task Force’s global terror-financing watchlist was another near-fatal blow that fractured bilateral relations between the two allies in the global war on terror.
Sensing the gravity of the situation, US National Security Council’s Liza Curtis paid a quiet visit to Islamabad in late February in a bid to find a common ground to address their fractured bilateral relations. Her visit helped fix the strain in ties to some extent and avoid a complete breakdown of an increasingly dysfunctional relationship.
During his visit to Kabul, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said that he had seen some changes in Pakistan’s behaviour since Trump criticised the country last year for harbouring the Taliban. He said that “there are operations by the Pakistan military that are helping right now, ongoing as we speak”.
However, in a recent meeting with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, US Vice-President Mike Pence reiterated America’s demand that Pakistan should do more. He also expressed his dissatisfaction over the actions taken by the Pakistan government to take on the Taliban and Haqqani Network.
In a recent move, the Trump administration has added seven Pakistani companies to a list of foreign entities that presumably pose a significant threat to America’s security and policy interests by allegedly engaging in nuclear trade. The move could potentially undermine Pakistan’s ambition of joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), an elite club of countries that can trade fissile material and nuclear technologies. US policymakers seem divided over the debate on how to take on Pakistan.
Those advocating friendly relations with Pakistan have cited the country’s strategic importance in helping America win the global war on terror and protecting US interest in the region. They have warned that alienating a nuclear-armed country of over 200 million would be a blunder. But the other school of thought favours a hardline approach and wants to teach Pakistan a lesson by cutting security and economic aid to the country – which, they believe, has been harbouring the terrorists that it is fighting against.
In a recent report presented to the Senate Intelligence Committee by the director of the US National Intelligence, 17 US intelligence agencies have warned Congress that Pakistan was slipping out of America’s influence and will soon become a threat to Washington’s interest in South Asia by coming closer into China’s orbit by 2019. The 17 agencies that jointly produced the report include the CIA, the Defence Intelligence Agency and the FBI’s National Security Agency.
The existing trust deficit between Pakistan – a major non-Nato ally for over a decade now – and the US has left the former with little option but to look for reliable partners in the global political theatre.
Pakistan, which is already part of China’s camp, found it natural to befriend Russia. At the same time, Russia needs China’s support on all fronts. Both countries see a strategic benefit in increasing cooperation to counter Nato and the US.
The recent military exercises between Pakistan and Russia are seen as a more visible sign of a fast friendship for the world to watch. Trade between both countries has jumped to $541 million from $400 million during the corresponding period in 2017. An increase of 33 percent has been recorded in the overall volume of the bilateral trade.
To that end, the decision to open an honorary consulate office of Russian Federation in Peshawar is a sign of the beginning of a new chapter of renewed diplomatic relations between both countries. While inaugurating the office, Russian Ambassador Alexey Yurievich assured the audience that high-tech machinery would be brought to Pakistan to speed up the exploration of oil and gas; boost the mining and transport sector; and strengthen hydropower generation in the country. The Russian envoy also stressed the need for increased contacts between governments, businessmen and the people of both countries.
Russian investors are keen on investing in Pakistan. A Russian company recently entered into an agreement to set up an oil refinery in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa while another company has shown an interest to help modernise Pakistan Railways.
Russian Ambassador also inaugurated the Pushkin Russian language laboratory at the Area Study Centre at University of Peshawar with a view to promote the country’s language learning and research.
For Russia, improved ties with Pakistan could mean access to Gwadar Port; leverage over India; a new market for defence equipment exports; and, of course, a greater role in Afghanistan.
The writer is a freelance journalist.