FeaturedNationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 48

Renewing ties with Washington

The government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif is trying to improve Pakistan’s sour relations with the United States, which is really an appreciable endeavour as Washington has been one of the key economic and political supporters of Islamabad in the last 50 years and remains to be the dominant power globally.

Recently, on the occasion of commemorating 75 years of establishing relations between Pakistan and the US, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said ties between the two countries should stand “on their own” and should not be seen through the “prism of Afghanistan” or the “lens of China”. This is really an apt argument on the part of the Pakistani leadership. Pakistan’s relations with the US have been historically pegged to Cold War dynamics and Washington’s rivalry with the Soviet Union camp. Afterwards, the ties have mainly rested on the conflict and crisis in Afghanistan. Washington considered Pakistan the key supporter of Afghan Mujahideen after the Soviet-Afghan war (1980-1988) and afterwards during the Afghan civil war and particularly the main support for the rise, dominance and taking the reins of the country by the Afghan Taliban from 1994-2001. Moreover, the occupation of Afghanistan by US-NATO forces in the aftermath of Afghanistan-based and Afghan Taliban-hosted Al Qaeda attacks on mainland America on September 9, 2001, and the ensuing Taliban insurgency were considered by Washington to be greatly backed by Islamabad. Therefore, Pakistan’s relations with Washington were seen by both countries through the prism of Afghanistan.

On the other hand, Pakistan-US relations have also been gyrating around China. Pakistan was the first country to have established relations with communist China when it emerged in 1949. Afterwards in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was Pakistan that served as the bridge to establish diplomatic relations between China and the US. Although China has not been a big factor afterwards but since Beijing’s rise and vision to become a real world power to rival Washington, Islamabad’s close relations with Beijing have not been seen very favourably by US strategists. One thinks that Pakistan’s relations with Washington should be extensive and profound. This could only be possible when they take into consideration all aspects of state-to-state relationship including the economy, trade, society and culture besides politics and security. While the role of politics and security cannot be discounted in Pakistan-US relations, as they have been of deep importance but considering them the only areas of cooperation and entanglement is naïve.

There have been many ups and downs in the relationship between the two countries and they have been responsible for negative trends in ties. Therefore, PM Shehbaz Sharif rightly pointed out, “Let bygones be bygones,” during a reception at the US embassy in Islamabad to commemorate the 75 years of relations between the two countries.

He added “As I said, there will be a lot of what your (US) side wants to say but as long as we renew this friendship with sincere and serious dialogue, I can assure you that nothing will go wrong. I want to say this very sincerely today that we want to build and reset these relations back to normal on the basis of trust, respect, and mutual understanding.”

The Prime Minister also very correctly expressed regret that aid worth $32 billion contributed by Washington to his country in the past was not spent “in the right direction”. He added, “Had we used this aid in a well-planned and properly supervised manner we would have broken our begging bowl. But then there is no point in crying over broken bowls.” This is a very important observation and is a dig at some institutions of Pakistan.

Relations between Pakistan and the US touched the rock bottom after the swashbuckling control of the Afghan Taliban as the American forces were withdrawing from the war-ravaged country. Since the Taliban takeover of Kabul on August 15 last, relations between the two countries have been greatly affected, while the withdrawal was being considered as a defeat of America by its strategic competitors, Russia, China and its rival, Iran.

As if the Taliban takeover of Kabul and American forces unceremonious withdrawal from there was not enough, ties between Islamabad and Washington nosedived when former Prime Minister Imran Khan accused the US of openly demanding former Pakistan Ambassador Asad Majeed, through its Assistant Secretary of State for Central & South Asian Affairs, Donald Lu, toppling of his government. Washington totally dissociated itself from the change of the government in Pakistan in April. While the role of the US in Pakistan politics cannot be totally denied but Imran Khan’s incessant attack on Washington for bringing down his government has been inadvisable. Anyway, Pakistan and the US are two states and they would continue to have relations with each other. Therefore, taking such a radical stance is not affordable for Pakistan, which is a far smaller and weaker state than the US.

For instance, although the Afghan issue is far from being settled and the US role cannot be completely obliterated in the country, Washington would have to hook up with Pakistan regarding matters in Afghanistan. But the most important lesson which both Pakistan and the United States should learn is that they have to unpeg their relations from Afghanistan and work towards a broader framework of relations earnestly.

Historically, Pakistan is an old partner of the US, however, this partnership has been evolving over decades and demands and expectations of both states from each other have been changing despite their certain relatively stable interest in each other. In recent years, their relations have become so intricate that both countries have serious doubts about each other’s intentions while they also cannot afford to sever ties.

It is Pakistan’s good fortune that the US has important interests in Pakistan as it has kept extensive relations with it despite many ups and downs. Yet, since the dawn of the 21st century, the mutual relations have been dominated by the Afghan conflict. Moreover, as Pakistan has been currently engaged with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and got the much-needed tranche of loan agreed upon in 2019 to address its colossal macroeconomic woes, its policymakers must understand that most international economic decisions are determined by international political factors. Against this backdrop also, understanding the key interests of Washington in Pakistan becomes important for our policymakers as the US has a dominant voting share in all major international financial institutions, particularly the IMF. So if Pakistan needs to contract economic packages from the IMF, it would have to show flexibility on political questions with the US.

Lastly, Pakistan critically needs all-out US support to get state-of-the-art technology for economic and social development and diplomatic support and financial backing from Washington is crucial to stand on its own feet.