NationalVOLUME 14 ISSUE # 23

US, Pakistan pick up the threads

Prime Minister Imran Khan will proceed to the United States and call on President Donald Trump later this month. Before the meeting, both countries have removed many hurdles to friendly relations between them. After decades of expecting too much from each other, the US and Pakistan have realized that they need to rest their relationship. Pakistan is no more reliant on the US for military and financial aid and cannot be mistreated like the past. Its geostrategic position is too important to be ignored and the US seeks a new beginning with it on the basis of its interests in the region.


It will be Imran Khan’s first visit to the US after assuming power last year. Before the visit, both sides took some confidence-building measures after decades of sour relations. The US State Department designated the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) as a global terrorist group, paving the way for similar actions by the United Nations and other states. The same day, it was reported that top 13 leaders of the banned Jamaatud Dawa (JuD), including its chief Hafiz Saeed and Naib Emir Abdul Rehman Makki, were booked in nearly two dozen cases for terror financing and money laundering under the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997. The United States, which has pressured Pakistan to crack down on militant groups, has offered a $10 million reward for evidence leading to Saeed’s conviction. Some say the move aimed at averting Pakistan from being placed on the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) blacklist.


The US also stopped itself from opposing an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout package for Pakistan after initial threats. Few months ago, US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo had warned the IMF that the Trump administration would not allow it to lend US dollars to Pakistan for repaying China. The media interpreted it as a message to Pakistan, indicating that Washington would oppose its request for a bailout package from the IMF. After the statement, Pakistan accused the US of trying to spoil China’s biggest contribution to its future.


The terror-designation of the BLA is being seen as a diplomatic victory for Pakistan. Analysts say the organization has been a proxy of the Indian Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and the US decision is a setback for India. “The BLA is an armed separatist group that targets security forces and civilians, mainly in ethnic Baloch areas of Pakistan,” the State Department noted, citing reason behind the move. “The outfit has carried out several terrorist attacks in the past year, including a suicide attack in August, 2018 that targeted Chinese engineers in Balochistan, a November, 2018 attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi, and a May, 2019 attack against a luxury hotel in Gwadar,” it added. The BLA has remained a proscribed entity in Pakistan since 2006.


Analysts believe the timing of the decision suggested that the Trump Administration wanted to send a positive message to Pakistan ahead of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Washington. The US decision could also be linked to its current tensions with neighbouring Iran. The BLA has been operating both from Afghanistan and Iran and Washington might use the ban against Tehran, some fear. Other observers believe that the US decision would give legitimacy to Pakistan’s crackdown against the BLA. They say the move could be an acknowledgement from the US of Pakistan’s constructive and positive role in facilitating the Afghan peace process.


The move is being viewed as a quid pro quo for ensuring Pakistan’s assistance in the peace process in Afghanistan amid withdrawal of American troops ahead of the presidential election in the US. According to the Indian media, the BLA’s timeline (starting from 2004) has been coterminus with the US occupation of Afghanistan. It is inconceivable that the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan were unaware of the BLA’s subversive activities or who were its mentors. Islamabad has been shouting all this while its adversaries exploited the group as a proxy to destabilise Pakistan.


Experts say while the US is desperate to pull out of Afghanistan, Iran will jeopardise its exit strategy. In fact, the US apprehends that an extremely dangerous situation is arising in Afghanistan even as the withdrawal of the American troops accelerates. President Trump disclosed in a recent interview that the US troop level had come down to 9,000 from 16,000 already. He made no bones about the fact that he was finished with the war in Afghanistan. At one point in the interview, Trump bursts out, “I’d like to just get out.” He claims to keep a “very strong” intelligence presence in Afghanistan. He couldn’t care less anymore whether there will be a broad-based government in Kabul or a Taliban takeover. The US expects Pakistani help in persuading the Taliban to reach an agreement at the Qatar talks without any further delay, enabling the US to withdraw the troops expeditiously and in an orderly fashion and creating politico-security conditions to facilitate a peaceful transfer of power in Kabul. Analysts say the US is against expecting too much from Pakistan.

Experts say the nature of ties between the US and Pakistan has changed over the past many years and both have realized that they had demanded too much of each other in the past. However, challenges still persist despite the positive moves from both sides. They may have set the stage for an effort to resolve the differences, but it is too short to achieve substantive progress. Pakistan has long advocated a peaceful and a political settlement of the Afghan conflict. Pakistan also seeks an active US role in improvement of its relations with India, especially the situation on the Line of Control, so that it could focus on the western border with Afghanistan. Prime Minister Imran Khan has announced many times that Pakistan would never fight someone else’s war again. It was a clear message to the US that Pakistan would not fight its war in Afghanistan. Pakistan also needs to be cautious about its relations with China after the past arm-twisting tactics of the US. It will have to become self-reliant economically and militarily to earn a respectable place in the comity of nations.