Relations between the United States and Pakistan have remained under severe stress ever since the US raided Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideout in 2011, without taking Pakistan into confidence.
Are we then to assume that the recent phone calls by US Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary Pompeo to Pakistan’s PM and COAS be taken as an indication of a thaw in US-Pakistan relations or a mere one-off diplomatic nicety?
The most obvious reason for engaging Pakistan seems to be Washington’s renewed efforts at bringing peace to Afghanistan by seeking its assistance in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. The Afghan imbroglio hangs like an albatross around the US’s neck. Prospects for peace still remain elusive. There seems to be realisation of Pakistan’s legitimate concerns and its critical role in any potential Afghan peace process that the US has been ignoring in the past. Peace in Afghanistan could be greatly facilitated with Pakistan’s cooperation. Moreover, Pakistan’s support in ensuring effectiveness of the temporary ceasefire in Afghanistan was also a consideration. China played a crucial role in influencing the Taliban to agree to President Ghani’s offer of ceasefire during Eid holidays. Despite the short duration of the ceasefire it could be a harbinger for initiating the peace process by creating a congenial climate.
The US probably has realised that its past policy of maligning Pakistan and harping on the Haqqani network has not worked and only widened the chasm between the two countries. Despite serious governance and policy weaknesses, the people of Pakistan have demonstrated once again extraordinary resilience and ability to overcome US pressures.
The other factor that strengthens Pakistan’s ability to resist pressure is its growing strategic, political and economic relationship with China. Interestingly, Pakistan has wisely improved its relations with Russia and widened contacts with Central Asian states. The development of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as a viable alternative power centre is also contributing towards diffusing the US global power and providing alternative options for countries like Pakistan.
Furthermore, the US and European efforts to isolate Russia after the annexation of Crimea have encouraged Moscow to get closer to China and expand its relations and influence in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Russia remains engaged with the Taliban, their erstwhile enemies in a new jugsaw puzzle to counter the US influence in the region. Iran too for similar reasons is keeping its contacts with the Taliban leadership. Washington realises in this scenario it could exercise only limited leverage on Pakistan.
These developments, nonetheless, do not hide the reality that the US is still the world’s sole superpower and likely to stay in that position for years to come. Islamabad’s national interest lies in improving relations with Washington and its recent moves of seeking cooperation in the context of Afghanistan and reappraisal of relations affords a valuable opportunity to build on it.
Moreover, cooperating with the US in the context of bringing peace to Afghanistan and broadening areas of cooperation would be highly beneficial for Pakistan’s economy, political standing and foreign policy. No country benefits more than Pakistan if Afghanistan were to stabilise. It will also have a beneficial impact on its relations with India.
We also cannot overlook the reality that in this multi-polar world major powers have developed positive relations with erstwhile adversaries. Recent improvement in relations between India and China is a classic example of this trend. For both these countries the priority is to develop their economy for which peace is a vital element. Adversarial relations of the past and territorial disputes have not stood in their way from developing strong trade and economic linkages.
The current geo-political rivalry now rests in staying ahead in economic power, technological advancement and internal political stability. There are lessons for Pakistan from these global trends and developments.
It is possible that these international developments and India’s own experience that its policy in Kashmir is backfiring contributed towards the recent peace overtures in Kashmir and the recent announcement by India and Pakistan on a ceasefire agreement on the Line of Control. India should realise the obvious that peace in Kashmir is not feasible without meeting the genuine demands of Kashmiris and Pakistan’s cooperation. This simple truth Modi and the ruling party cannot continue to ignore indefinitely.
General Qamar Bajwa’s recent statements and overtures, clearly indicating that Pakistan seeks better relations with India, further reinforces the point that there is unanimity among the civilian and military leadership on this issue.
Despite US leanings towards India, it is a proponent of promoting Pakistan-India relations. For it realises that it will reduce the utility of non-state-actors for Pakistan. Better relations with India could in the long term promote strategic stability in the region and reduce the heavy reliance on nuclear build-up as well. It should also have a salutary impact on South Asia as a whole that has been the victim of India-Pakistan rivalry.
Pakistan’s present priority is to be in a better position to play a more effective role in bringing peace to Afghanistan. For this it must continue to win the confidence of the Afghan government and also use its influence to convince the Taliban leadership to stop fighting and engage in political dialogue with the Afghan government.
In this multi-polar world countries have relatively more options that Pakistan needs to exercise. China is one of the biggest trading partners of the US and is also a strategic partner of Russia. The ability to balance these relationships is the art of current global diplomacy. Pakistan could only maximise the advantage of its strategic location and its expanding middle class provided it is economically self-sustaining and politically stable.
To develop a more cooperative and durable relationship the US needs to lift the embargoes and sanctions that it has imposed on Pakistan in recent times. Cutting off the US assistance, while continuing to use Pakistan as a major conduit for supplies to Afghanistan, is not a fair deal.
Pakistan views US unilateralism with frustration. Yet it would be a willing partner, a useful ally if there is greater understanding of its national interests.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 13th, 2018.