Pak-US ties during Trump presidency

January 31, 2021

US-Pakistan relations hit a new low under Trump administration

Pakistan and the United States have had an interesting yet tough relationship. Referring to the two as ‘frenemies’ would not be inaccurate. Over the years, the two states have engaged in several transactional partnerships, but there has been little effort to form strategic sustainable ties.

In the early 2000s, when the US waged its war against terrorism, Pakistan helped it eliminate the non-state actors and terrorist groups sanctioned by the United Nations. The country did receive billions of dollars in military and civilian aid, but a discontent over Pakistan’s ties with the Taliban persisted.

This perception devalued Pakistan’s efforts in the War on Terror in the US eyes. Over the last two decades, the country has lost thousands of civilians, law enforcement personnel and billions of dollars in the devastating aftermath of fighting the war.

In the last four years under the Trump administration, the relations between the two countries hit a new low. Civilian engagement plummeted to almost zero. However, the military cooperation increased. Mike Pompeo, then secretary of state, gave a clear message to his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi that Islamabad’s road to Washington was via Kabul. Having promised during his election campaign to get US troops out of Afghanistan, President Trump needed Pakistan’s support in exiting Afghanistan. However, in a tweet on January 1, 2018, Trump accused Pakistan of “lies and deceit” and cut off $1.3 billion security assistance.

The Trump tweet prompted Islamabad to tell the Western giant that “we cannot do more.” Defence Minister Khurram Dastgir Khan said in a tweet that “Pakistan as an anti-terror ally has given free to the US: land & air communication, military bases & Intel cooperation that decimated Al Qaeda over last 16yrs, but they have given us nothing but invective & mistrust. They overlook cross-border safe havens of terrorists who murder Pakistanis.”

To be accused of deceit was a major embarrassment for Pakistan. An ally of the US since the beginning of the War on Terror, it could not put up with the bizarre claims of President Trump. Islamabad decided therefore to deal with the US through its military leadership.

A major issue faced by Pakistan’s foreign policy establishment is that despite close communication with the American institutions, it has not been able to develop a solid coordination and cooperation routine with the country. Many Pakistani leaders do not understand the American institutional framework and decision-making in the Congress, State Department, Defence Department, White House and the many think tanks. Every four years, Pakistan is at the mercy of interest groups and lobbying firms funded by hostile powers that influence important US institutions at Pakistan’s cost.

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global money-laundering watchdog, put Pakistan on its grey list in 2018. This meant that Pakistan’s efforts for anti-money laundering and terror financing were not considered sufficient. This was a political move from Washington to pressure Pakistan to help it in the Afghan peace process. Pakistan’s legal framework for countering terror financing and money laundering also needed enhanced legislation to meet its global commitments. For the rest of President Trump’s tenure, Pakistan remained on the FATF grey list.

At the end of 2018, President Trump wrote a letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan asking for help in the Afghanistan peace process. With support from Pakistan, the US and the Taliban reached an agreement on bringing peace to the country after two decades of conflict. Trump’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, praised Pakistan’s support for bringing the Taliban to the table and supporting efforts for peace in Afghanistan.

While Trump remained tough on Pakistan, pressuring it through the FATF and by suspending security assistance, he tried to keep a balance in relations between Pakistan and India. He used a measured tone when talking about Pakistan during his visit to New Dehli. He apparently realised that bad-mouthing Pakistan in India could jeopardise progress in the peace process in Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Imran Khan and the army chief’s visit to Washington upon receiving a letter of appreciation from President Trump for supporting the US in the Afghan process, marked a shift in Pak-US relations. Pakistan wanted to be treated as an equal partner and demanded economic cooperation rather than aid. US expressed a willingness to give Pakistan greater access to the American markets. The country is already the largest export destination for Pakistani products.

Pakistan has serious capability issues when it comes to economic engagement with the US. It asks for market access, but not many of its products are competetive. Productivity and cost-related challenges continue to hinder progress on economic cooperation between the two.

Over the last twenty years, it has become clear that it is mostly United States’ security needs that determine the Pak-US relations. For a comprehensive engagement with the US, Pakistan must think beyond this security model.

America is aware of the capabilities of Pakistan’s armed forces. However, the civilian leadership must step up to meaningfully engage with the American leadership and institutions. Political insatiability, the mediocrity of Pakistan’s political elite, and lack of schooling on global politics keep Pakistan’s choices constrained on the foreign policy front.

The writer is an academic based in Islamabad

Pak-US ties during Trump presidency