The road to estrangement

October 24, 2021

Despite Pakistan’s efforts to have a broad-based relationship with the US, Washington seems uninterested in anything beyond Afghanistan

The road to estrangement

Pakistan-US ties could never be described as warm even during the 20 years the American military remained directly engaged in Afghanistan. Now, after the chaotic US withdrawal, the relationship is at a crossroads with an uncertain future.

The gulf between Pakistani and US leadership is widening as can easily be deduced from the public statements coming from both sides. The US is being portrayed by the Pakistani media as trying to blame Pakistan for its own failures, while Islamabad appears in the Western media to have openly moved from covert to overt support for the Taliban.

In an opinion piece published on September 27 in The Washington Post, Prime Minister Imran Khan, reiterated his demand for the US to stop scapegoating Pakistan. Almost a year earlier, Mr Khan had written a column in the same paper warning against a hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan and stressed the need for a resolution of the issue through dialogue. He had also sought to highlight Pakistan’s efforts in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table.

Pakistan, particularly during the last decade of the war, hoped for a broad relationship with the US, but these hopes were cast aside by the latter with its old iteration of ‘do more’ in the War on Terror.

At the sudden fall of the Kabul government to the Taliban, Pakistan was accused of providing logistic, if not military, support. After Kabul’s fall, #SanctionPakistan became a top Twitter trend shared by many civil society members and Afghan officials angry at what they called Islamabad’s interference in Afghanistan over the years.

Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan is nothing new. In 1993, then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif had taunted his political rival, the Pakistan Peoples Party: “You gave up Dhaka, we took Kabul” a reference to Islamabad’s support for resistance against the government in Kabul that eventually led to its fall. This led to distrust for Pakistan in Afghanistan’s government and people.

For these reasons, says Adam Weinstein, a US-based researcher, anger against Pakistan grew in Afghanistan. This caused the previous Afghan governments to hold Pakistan responsible for their problems and demand US action against it. However, he says, policymakers in Washington, who did not want to turn a nuclear-armed Pakistan into an isolated pariah state, ignored such demands.

The situation is different now and calls to punish Pakistan are growing louder. Statements from Pakistani government officials, politicians and those in favour of the Taliban takeover have helped these anti-Pakistan elements garner broader support.

In this regard, the recent statement by Prime Minister Khan calling the US withdrawal from Afghanistan “liberation of Afghans from shackles of slavery” is important. Hence when Bloomberg said Pakistan was a bigger winner than the Taliban, this was not seen as an exaggeration. Its editorial board stressed the need for continuing counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan but also suggested targetted sanctions against it.

Fox TV declared Taliban takeover an invasion by Pakistan’s spy agency and used a photoshopped picture of Taliban leader Mullah Baradar, showing him as a Pakistani citizen. Some US-based analysts have called for Pakistan to be included in the list of countries sponsoring terrorism like Cuba, Syria, North Korea and Iran.

John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, has called Pakistan’s spy agency a hotbed of radicalism and asked the US to end aid to Pakistan, remove its status as a major non-NATO ally, and impose sanctions. It is a change in tune from when Bolton said in 2010 that he believed “Pakistan’s military possesses greater loyalty to the idea of Pakistan than its civilian leaders and (former president) George Bush should have kept Musharraf in power.”

According to Victor Gill, a Pakistani-American activist, what brings the US-Pakistan relations to this crossroads is not that their interests have diverged from the days of anti-Soviet cooperation. He says a root cause for this dysfunction is that the relations are largely managed through the security establishments of the two countries. He recalled in 2018, Gen Joseph Votel of US forces said he spoke to his Pakistani counterpart almost every week. US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin has also spoken by phone with Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, at least five times; and CIA Director William Burns has met with ISI Director-General Faiz Hameed and Gen Bajwa.

The road to estrangement

“Regardless of withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, the China-Pakistan friendship will ensure that Pakistan remains relevant to the US. Pakistan and the US have close ties with each other’s rivals (India and China), therefore they are always relevant to each other. An alignment in interests is a guarantee of cooperation,” says Prof Richard M Lang.

“Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi held a one-on-one meeting for the first time three weeks ago on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session. However, President Joe Biden has yet to call Imran Khan,” Gill says.

He says that relations between the countries have often grown closer during periods of military rule. “During the 1960s under President Ayub Khan, in the 1980s under President Muhammad Ziaul Haq and in the early 2000s under President Pervez Musharraf bilateral relations were very cordial. It is justified to say that ties grew colder under the leadership of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s; in 1990s during Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s term, when Pakistan faced sanctions for nuclear tests; and now under the leadership of Prime Minister Imran Khan. Had Pakistan been a true democracy in 2001, fully accountable to public and its lawmakers, things might have gone differently and President Bush’s “with us or against us” ultimatum to President Musharraf might not have worked the way it did.”

Col Sohail Anwar (retired), a Pakistani-Canadian, says Pakistan’s cooperation is still crucial for refugee resettlement, continued evacuations and economic development in Afghanistan. “Even some of the biggest critics of Pakistan’s security establishment have credited it with assisting Washington against transnational terrorist groups. Washington and Islamabad will likely continue to fight these groups together. Pakistan also holds an inherent importance as a nuclear-armed country of more than 226 million people that finds itself on the front lines of climate change,” he says.

Hussain Haqani, the former Pakistani ambassador to the US, says Pakistan remains important for US policy. “There is a case for a fresh round of Pakistan-US engagement, albeit on a more candid and realistic basis. Given the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the need for ensuring another friendly anchor in this very troubled part of the world, Pakistan could be a useful American partner if it wants to be one,” he stated in a recent column.

Richard M Lang, a Canada-based college professor, says that regardless of withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, the China-Pakistan friendship will ensure that Pakistan is relevant for the US. He says Pakistan and the US have close ties with each other’s rivals (India and China), therefore they are quite relevant to each other. An alignment in interests is a guarantee of cooperation, he says, adding that Pakistan’s denial to US carrot and stick tactics can strengthen their bilateral ties on the basis of geo-economics.

Although Pakistan wants a close relationship with the US, particularly in its current economic crunch, the US seems uninterested to have relations beyond Afghanistan issue. Recent developments in Washington on the issue are very important to look at. In a congressional hearing a few weeks ago, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley said that “we need to fully examine the role of Pakistan sanctuary” in understanding how the Taliban prevailed. In September, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US government would be looking at “the role we would want to see [Pakistan] play in the coming years and what it will take for it to do that”. The Biden administration’s engagement with Pakistan seems only focused on Afghanistan. CIA Director William Burns visited Pakistan in September, to discuss counterterrorism cooperation.

The Blinken-Qureshi meeting in New York also focused only on Afghanistan. US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Pakistan and India two weeks ago. In an interview in India she said, “It’s for a very specific and narrow purpose, we don’t see ourselves building a broad relationship with Pakistan. And we have no interest in returning to the days of hyphenated India-Pakistan.”

While in Pakistan, she seemed more diplomatic. She said that “Afghanistan was at the top of our agenda, but we also discussed our cooperation in other areas, including the geo-economics, regional connectivity, climate crisis, and ending the Covid-19 pandemic”. She added that “the United States believes that a strong, prosperous, democratic Pakistan is vitally important for the region and indeed for the wider world.”

The writer is based in Canada. The writer studied religion, culture and global justice

The road to estrangement