Pakistan is experiencing a prolonged period of highly strained relations with the US and the prospects in future do not seem bright. President Trump’s speech last August that was meant to give out the broad contours of his Afghan policy included a blistering attack on Pakistan. He focused on the oft-repeated accusation that Pakistan harbours terrorist organisations and implied that the US could no more tolerate it. Trump, however, offered a sort of carrot by saying that Pakistan had much to gain by supporting US policies in Afghanistan and abandoning its support of terrorists, implying thereby the Taliban.
Pakistan rightly rejected these allegations and put across its point of view as to how effectively and at a heavy price it has been fighting the terrorist groups. It also reiterated that Afghanistan requires a political solution and Pakistan policies are a manifestation of it.
The prime minister at the recent United Nations General Assembly also tried to project Pakistan’s fight against militancy and the successes achieved so far. What the West refuses to recognise that Pakistan cannot invite the enmity of the Afghan Taliban when it is fighting its own war. Moreover, with Afghanistan leaning heavily on India and pursuing a hostile policy towards Pakistan and Washington fully supportive of it to expect it will add the Taliban to its list of enemies would be unrealistic. The presence and support of the TTP, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and other anti-Pakistan terrorist groups by India and Afghanistan with the US turning a blind eye is another point of serious concern to Pakistan. In this volatile situation, India and Afghanistan have given the TTP and other groups a free rein to commit acts of terrorism in Pakistan.
Despite current serious differences with the US, Pakistan’s leadership would like to mend its relations with it. It realises the unique position of the US as a superpower and is aware that it is likely to stay in Afghanistan up to 2020 and beyond. In any case it is never helpful to be on the wrong side of a superpower. The striking feature is that it is not looking to Washington for financial or military aid, as was the case in the past. But it would justifiably expect that its role in the fight against terror would be recognised. COAS Gen Qamar Bajwa stated this in unequivocal terms. The prime minister has sent out a similar message. Pakistan expects the US to be sensitive to its interests, which it has been ignoring and looking at it through the lens of Afghanistan or India. More worrying is Washington unfairly scapegoating Pakistan for its failure in Afghanistan. President Trump wants India to play a major role in Afghanistan. Pakistan has serious reservations about this policy as India has been using Afghan territory to encircle it. With India there are other major issues the most important being that of Kashmir and lately on the division of water resources.
Washington is also wary of Islamabad’s close political, economic and strategic relations with Beijing. It views the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) with suspicion and although it is not as vocal as India, it is opposing the project.
In the past, Pakistan had successfully managed to maintain very good relations with both the US and China. In fact, it had played a vital role in bringing these two countries closer by arranging Henry Kissinger’s secret trip to Beijing in July 1971.
During the 1970s, the US wanted to befriend China to counter the influence of the erstwhile Soviet Union.
The situation now is very different as the US allied with India now wants to checkmate China’s growing economic and political clout.
Despite the long history of US-Pakistan relations it remains transactional and has been heavily tilted towards security issues. The US has been a key procurement source for major weapon systems especially fighter aircraft, armoured personnel carriers, artillery guns, communication equipment and sophisticated radars. But lately due to various restrictions and high costs Pakistan has been mainly relying on China for all its fundamental weapon systems and equipment. Nonetheless, the US remains a major export destination of textiles and leather goods. Its universities and academic institutions due to their high quality and reputation are a great attraction for the Pakistani youth. Pakistan’s diaspora in the US serves as an important source of remittances and at the personal level acts as a bridge between the two countries.
Another great challenge for Pakistan is to rehabilitate its soiled image in the US. Congress in particular is rather hostile and introduced several legislative measures to curtail funding and is generally opposed to sale of military hardware. Foreseeing it, Pakistan over the years has been relying primarily on the Chinese for acquisition of weapon systems. And where feasible have explored European sources for procurement of weapons and technology. Interestingly, the positive outcome has been that it has strengthened Pakistan’s indigenous capability.
Despite the current US hostility it would be in Pakistan’s interest to remain engaged with important members of Congress and counter the Indian lobby. The role of the US media too has been very damaging for Pakistan’s reputation. Of late, signs of improvement have been seen. Pakistan needs to be more open and less restrictive on its visa policy if it is serious about improving its international image.
Washington applies different standards while dealing with New Delhi and Islamabad on nuclear issues. It has been continuously facilitating the development of India’s nuclear programme. The US has fully backed India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and it is only because of the opposition by China and other states that it has not succeeded. India, with the support of the US, has become a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime in 2016. Whereas it been generally opposed to Pakistan’s nuclear programme and opposes its entry to any of these groups. Despite these challenges and conflicting strategic interests, there remain areas of common interest on which both countries should continue to build for their common advantage.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 27th, 2017.