There is a need to renegotiate terms of Pakistan-US relations now that the Afghan war has ended
he United States Department of State recently approved the potential sale to Pakistan of certain equipment related to F-16 aircraft estimated to be about $450 million. Several analysts, including some writing in Indian newspapers, have seen this as an indication of improvement in Pakistan-US relations and an effort on the part of Washington to keep Pakistan in its loop as a regional strategic partner.
The Indian media emphasised that the transaction was a sale and not assistance and that it will not change the strategic balance in the region since it does not add any new capability. In Pakistan, some analysts have welcomed the announcement as a fresh development in the bilateral relations after former prime minister Imran Khan and his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), had accused Washington (particularly Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lou) of hatching a conspiracy to end his government.
Pakistan-US relations have essentially been need-based.
Throughout the Cold War, Pakistan played a vital role in regional as well as extra-regional affairs. According to Dennis Kux, during the Yahya regime, Pakistan helped the United States establish diplomatic relations with China. For its support to US and its Cold War allies, Pakistan was rewarded mostly in the form of arms sales. During the Afghan wars, the United States offered economic and military aid to assure cooperation. Once the need abated, various sanctions were slapped on Pakistan. It can be argued that Pakistan lost more than it gained in the War on Terror in Afghanistan. It is estimated to have lost more than $150 billion in economic and social underdevelopment while it received around $20 billion.
The United States and Pakistan have divergent regional and extra-regional interests. Even in areas where these interests converge in general, there are strong disagreements on details. For Pakistan, India is the most prominent security question. Any addition to Indian strategic strength is a zero-sum development for Islamabad. For the United States, a strong India is important to keep pressure on China.
For Pakistan, Taliban may be the only viable government in Afghanistan; the United States, however, does not find them trustworthy. Only recently Ayman al-Zawahiri has been killed in Kabul. For Pakistan, the CPEC is an important development for its economy; the United States, however, has warned that it may land Islamabad in a debt-trap. For Pakistan, its energy crisis is the most significant impediment to realising its economic potential. A plausible solution is import of gas from Iran through a Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline. However, the United States has sanctioned Iran, and the supply has not materialised. Russia has been mentioned as another option but the ongoing conflict in Ukraine may prove an insurmountable hurdle in this regard.
The United States and Pakistan have divergent regional and extra-regional interests. Even in areas where these interests converge in general, there are strong disagreements on details.
In areas where both countries agree on desired outcomes, such as curbing terrorism, promoting democracy, women’s rights, education and cultural development, they frequently disagree on implementation mechanisms. Throughout the War on Terror in Afghanistan, Islamabad defined terrorists from its own national-interest perspective. As such, it focused on militant groups seen challenging the writ of the state of Pakistan. On Afghan territory, Pakistan provided limited support, facilitating operations against only the elements it found to be anti-Pakistan. This did not include the Taliban who were fighting against the NATO forces. In August 2021, the then prime minister described the Taliban takeover of Kabul as a breaking of shackles of slavery.
The United States’ support for democracy in Pakistan has been compromised from time to time, particularly during times when Washington needed strategic support from Islamabad. This has historically suited the interests of some military dictators.
In the wake of 9/11, the United States expanded its public diplomacy operations by introducing educational and cultural opportunities to underdeveloped areas of the country. This opened new doors for higher education, women empowerment and cultural exchange for the Pakistani youth. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United States Educational Foundation in Pakistan have provided Fulbright scholarships and UGRAD scholarships.
There is no denying the impact of these opportunities. Unfortunately, such programmes face policy and perspective challenges. An anti-American social approach resists endeavours for women empowerment as indoctrination by the West.
The Russia-Ukraine war is another example of how Pakistan-US bilateral relations are complicated by developments in international affairs. Any attempt by Pakistan to diversify its energy imports can upset not only the Western powers but also its friends in the Middle East.
Given its dire economic and financial situation, Pakistan’s reliance on Washington’s continued support to access bailout packages from international financial institutions will keep producing policy challenges.
Three ground realities matter the most at the moment. One, Pakistan’s economy is vulnerable. Two, the US forces have left Afghanistan so that it is less in need of Pakistan’s support in that country. Three, the US hegemony is being challenged in Europe and Asia by Russia and China respectively.
China continues to be Pakistan’s biggest supplier of weapons. Pakistan has recently purchased weapons from Russia as well. The United States is likely to bring about pressure to bear against Pakistan’s import of oil or gas from Russia. The clearance for sale of military equipment can be interpreted as a signal to India that the US regional interests might require including Pakistan. It is time for Islamabad to worry about its position in the region. Now that the US forces have withdrawn from Afghanistan, there is a need to renegotiate the terms of Pakistan-US bilateral relations.
The writer is a lecturer at Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, USA. He can be approached at slasharitamu.edu