Pakistan-US: Developing Ties

Spearhead Analysis – 30.03.2018

By Hira A. Shafi
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

On 22nd January, 2018 Pakistan’s Ambassador to US, Mr Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, was invited for a discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The discussion was titled: “Broadening the Lens beyond Security: The Next Few Decades of US – Pakistan Relations”.

The discussion focused on the new US foreign policy direction as highlighted in the National Security Strategy and further cemented in the National Defence Strategy. The new era focuses on interstate strategic competition – terming China, Russia, Iran and Korea as prominent competitors to US interests.  Combatting transnational terror organisations is positioned secondary to the interstate competitions. Mr Aizaz pointed out to the plethora of literature that has emerged over the years, shaping the perception of an emerging multipolar world. Highlighting the work of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore, that suggested China’s rise would be just another player that would require a new balance.  Thus, the US reorganisation of its priorities wasn’t a sudden decision. At the same time, Mr Aizaz called for introspection on changing dynamics of global norms that serve as core pillars of the current global order. The protectionist sentiments challenging the notions of free trade, Immigration, which was once perceived as infusion of fresh blood, is now seen as a threat to national security by some circles. Commitments to climate change are under question and a narrow sense of nationalism is on the rise.

In the case of Pakistan-US, the Ambassador noted that the US view of Pakistan is often narrowly viewed through:

  1. US challenges in Afghanistan
  2. US-China competition
  3. India’s role in the Asia Pacific region
  4. The counter terror lens.

While discussing the broader Asian region, he highlighted the dynamics of uneasy peace between China and India, a tense Pakistan-India relationship, an unstable Afghanistan and the JCPOA with Iran, which is also under a question mark. Amidst these changing global dynamics and the challenges they pose, it was highlighted that Pakistan has performed well on the counter terror front. Pakistan not only witnessed the harsh impacts of terrorism directly but also through its indigenous efforts has combatted it. In order to effectively pacify the terror crisis, it was highlighted that peace and stability in Afghanistan is integral. This is the area where Pakistan-US cooperation becomes crucial.

The stated US objective in Afghanistan is to ensure that no more attacks along the lines of 9/11 occur. It is however, important to introspect how responsible was Pakistan in this event? Has the situation in Afghanistan improved over the years? What are the regional dynamics? Why does the Pak-US relation oscillate and how could the relationship be realistically broadened?

The Ambassador reiterated that Pakistan sees no military solution to the Afghan conflict. Efforts to mainstream aggrieved elements should be enhanced. Responding to allegations of Pakistani support to Afghan elements, the Ambassador highlighted 43% of Afghan territory is reportedly under the control of Taliban, the Afghan drug trade has enhanced 3,400 times since the start of the war, and the broader regional dynamics cannot be ignored while assessing the Pak-US terms through the prism of Afghanistan.

It was noted that the Pakistan-US ties operate on two levels, i.e., Government to Government and People to People. Despite the glitches in Government to Government ties, the people to people interaction remains relatively stable. This is an area that could be expanded upon to improve the overall ties. Pakistan is experiencing a youth bulge and it is essential to utilise this demographic change effectively for global stability. It is also important to assess the input of Pakistani youth in US economy and further expand their utility. It was also highlighted that despite the US concerns with Chinese OBOR initiatives, around 80 US companies are already involved in CPEC related activities and remain interested in Pakistani energy sector.

While answering a question on improving the bilateral trust deficit, the Ambassador recalled the US-Pakistan cooperation in dismantling Al-Qaeda networks in Afghanistan, highlighting the need to create shared objectives.     

It would be counterproductive for a nation that has faced the brunt of terrorism, sacrificed countless lives, and witnessed massive economic losses to be accused of the allegations it now faces. The broader processes of de-radicalisation and rehabilitation often find their roots in structural and capacity issues, which as suggested by the ambassador, are also being reviewed. It is essential for these areas to be uplifted and supported to preserve the shared Pak-US counter terror objectives.  

On February 6,, 2018, Seth Jones, Harold Brown Chair and Director of the Transnational Threats Project (CSIS), testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific on “U.S.-Pakistan Relations: Reassessing Priorities Amid Continued Challenges.” He stated that the United States needs to broaden its relationship with Islamabad beyond just security issues, but Washington also needs to be prepared for escalation if Pakistan refuses to adequately cooperate with US in the Afghan crisis. Some of his suggestions included:

  1. Freeze or terminate most military aid to Pakistan.
  2. Consider suspending or terminating Pakistan’s status as a non-NATO ally.
  3. Consider making it more difficult for Islamabad to get access to multilateral financial lenders.
  4. Consider placing Pakistan on the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Pakistan’s recent stances have revolved around highlighting the link between economics and security. Unsurprisingly, the US identified pressure points for Pakistan also revolve around these domains. Following the sequel of security aid suspensions, Pakistan again found itself being placed on the FATF watch list. Reportedly, Pakistan will be assigned to the FATF watch list starting June 2018, once an action plan has been mutually negotiated. Recently, the US has enlisted Pakistani companies for alleged proliferation activities. The statements from both ends continue to oscillate, with resolves of cooperation followed by talks of dissent. Despite the recent discourses suggesting that the Trump administration may be inclined towards further enhancing pressure on Pakistan, there is also an understanding that a complete rupture is undesirable for both parties.

Pakistan has to consider that if it does all that the US is demanding then will this end US pressure or will new demands surface? Similar situations in the past could be recalled to reach a conclusion. Pakistan also has to consider the blow-back to its internal security environment after it takes action on US demands-will it be able cope with that? Pakistan has to determine US long term interests in Afghanistan and also determine what kind of Pakistan the US wants in pursuit of its strategies against China and Russia and how India fits in with US plans.

Pakistan must gauge its relationship in accordance with its own national interests.  Similarly, it is imperative for US to assess its own objectives and the long term effectiveness of its current policy towards Pakistan, in light of the broader global changes. It remains to be seen how the two states configure their ties in light of US threat perceptions outlined in the NSS and NDS to potentially create a mutually beneficial space for cooperation.