The diplomatic front

December 31, 2023

2023 saw a marked improvement in Pakistan-US ties

The diplomatic front

In 2023, Pakistan faced numerous challenges and realignments in its foreign policy landscape. The country, facing the challenges of a fragile economy, political instability and the pressures of an election year, found it hard to play a prominent role in global and regional affairs. Despite these limitations, a noteworthy development during the year was in Pakistan-US relations, marking a substantial improvement. In June, Pakistan secured a crucial financial assistance package from the International Monetary Fund. The package aimed at addressing Pakistan’s most severe economic crisis since gaining independence in 1947. The collaboration with the United States played a pivotal role in securing the agreement.

Both civil and military leaders worked towards revitalising Pakistan-US relations. Then foreign minister, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, played a pivotal role, making two visits to the United States. Bilawal Bhutto also engaged in frequent discussions with the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, addressing various bilateral issues in telephone conversations.

In a bid to strengthen military, diplomatic and financial ties, Gen Syed Asim Munir, the chief of army staff, undertook an official visit to the USA, within a year of assuming office. During his visit, Gen Munir met with key US officials, including Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun and UN Secretary-General António Guterres. He also visited the headquarters of US Central Command in Florida and met with Secretary Blinken.

It is believed that discussions during these interactions encompassed Pakistan-Afghanistan relations and the matter of dealing with approximately 1.7 million Afghan refugees. Pakistan is believed to have obtained tacit support for its firm stance towards the Afghan regime.

In 2023, Pakistan and Afghanistan experienced a significant deterioration in their relations. The Takeover of Kabul by the Afghan Taliban had some unintended consequences. Among other things, it provided an opportunity for the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan to strengthen its position by rearming, recruitment and expanding its operational capabilities. This newfound strength has allowed the TTP to carry out cross-border attacks into Pakistan. Despite persistent requests, protests and warnings from Pakistan, the Taliban regime has been reluctant to restrain the TTP, prompting Pakistan to adopt a coercive approach.

On November 8, Caretaker Prime Minister Anwar-ul Haq Kakar took a firm stand against the Taliban government. He criticised the Taliban leadership and accused it of supporting the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and thereby fuelling an insurgency against Pakistan. He said this support had led to a significant increase in violence in Pakistan, resulting in the deaths of 2,867 Pakistanis since the Taliban assumed control of Afghanistan in August 2021.

In response to these challenges, the Afghan policy of Pakistan government has undergone a strategic shift. It has dropped its unconditional support for the Taliban regime and clearly signalled a departure from its previous stance. Its support for the current regime in Kabul is ging to be contingent upon action against the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan. This shift in approach has demonstrated the government’s commitment to safeguarding its interests and maintaining stability in the region. There is zero tolerance towards terrorist groups.

In 2023, there was no improvement in relations between Pakistan and India. A notable achievement was the continuation of a cease-fire across the Line of Control in Kashmir since early 2021.

Despite this, India has consistently resisted the revival of the SAARC and actively worked to undermine platforms shared with Pakistan. This is evident in its persistent efforts to embarrass Pakistani representatives during SCO meetings, despite the commitment by both countries to participate in such forums. In April, Bilawal Bhutto’s visit to India produced no improvement. India also sought to block Pakistan’s participation in the BRICS meeting.

New conflicts related to sharing of river waters have emerged, leading to the two governments exchanging sharp accusations. The potential for water scarcity may escalate tensions between the two countries in the future.

Since August 2019, when India unilaterally revoked Kashmir’s internal autonomy by abolishing Articles 370 and 35A of its constitution, the diplomatic relations between Pakistan and India have been downgraded. Bilateral trade has been suspended, and air or land travel between the two nations has ceased. The prospects for the resumption of these diplomatic and economic activities remain uncertain.

The global geopolitical landscape witnessed a shift from Ukraine to Palestine in the last quarter of this year. The ambitious US plan to reshape the Middle East faced a setback when an armed conflict between Israel and Hamas erupted in the Gaza Strip. This conflict has brought the normalisation process between the Gulf States and Israel to a halt. While Pakistan has expressed solidarity with the besieged people of Palestine, internal political crises and the absence of an elected government have prevented it from playing a leading role in resolution of the Middle East crisis.

One notable diplomatic achievement from the past year was Pakistan’s successful establishment of a framework designed to attract substantial investments from the Middle East. The introduction of the Special Investment Facilitation Council, supported by the Pakistan Army, is geared towards aiding foreign investors by addressing obstacles and bureaucratic challenges. Pakistan envisions securing around $25 billion in investments from Saudi Arabia, with additional contributions expected from the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar. The SIFC is diligently working to foster an investment-friendly environment in Pakistan, laying the groundwork for the anticipated inflows. The realisation of these commitments is anticipated over the months ahead.

In the past year, high-level visits between Pakistani leaders, civilian and military, and their Chinese counterparts have marked a deepening of diplomatic ties. Despite security concerns over attacks on Chinese projects in Pakistan, China has reiterated its commitment to enhancing economic cooperation. However, it has also emphasised the need for ensuring the safety of Chinese personnel and organisations operating in Pakistan.

President Xi Jinping has advocated for an “upgraded version” of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, calling for expanded collaboration in industrial parks, agriculture, mining, new energy, and the swift implementation of major connectivity projects. Pakistan has so far completed projects worth $25 billion under the CPEC, a flagship initiative of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The total commitment is for $65 billion for infrastructure development.

Despite Pakistan’s substantial debt, Beijing has remained a steadfast supporter, recognising the strategic importance of a strong Pakistan as a counterbalance to India’s influence in the region. Gen Munir visited China in April to bolster bilateral relations. The close military-to-military cooperation between the two nations underscores the depth of their alliance, with Pakistan sourcing a significant portion of its military equipment from China.

The year 2023 witnessed new restrictions on freedom of expression, a crackdown on dissenting voices and widespread human rights violations. Numerous international human rights organisations and the UN Human Rights Council condemned the treatment of minorities, political opponents and the imposition of internet shutdowns.

There was a notable expansion during the year in the military’s engagement across national security, diplomacy and economic domains. An increasing number of nations are now prioritising the establishment of strong ties with the military.

The writer is a freelance contributor. He can be reached at and tweets @ErshadMahmud

The diplomatic front