Adopting a new strategy?
A recent Democracy Forum webinar assessed notable shifts in Washington-Islamabad ties, what lies behind them and how the relationship might develop, going forward
The relationship between the United States and Pakistan has long been a turbulent one. But today, is a new momentum developing between Islamabad and Washington, born of geopolitical necessity? To discuss this and related issues, London-based think tank The Democracy Forum assembled a panel of experts at a December virtual seminar titled ‘US-Pakistan tensions: What next for erstwhile allies?’
In his opening comments, TDF President Lord Bruce highlighted the ‘flurry of diplomatic activity’ that followed the collapse, in April, of Imran Khan’s administration, and the assumption of Shehbaz Sharif’s coalition government – for example, the Biden administration’s hosting of several high level missions, involving senior military personnel and the foreign minister, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, whose visit coincided with the announcement of a $450m grant to refurbish the Pakistan airforce’s F-16 fighter jets. But, despite these diplomatic overtures, the recalibration of relations is unlikely to be a straightforward process, warned Lord Bruce, citing the‘unfortunate timing’of Bhutto Zardari’s visit to Washington, coinciding as it did with a visit from the Indian secretary for foreign affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, who publicly lambasted the F-16 deal, and criticised Washington’s alignment with Islamabad as ‘a relationship that has neither ended up serving Pakistan well nor serving American interests’.
In the wake of President Biden’s inadvertent comment describing Pakistan as‘maybe one of the most dangerous nations in the world’, an October visit to Washington by outgoing head of the Pakistan army General Bajwa appears to have given Biden no reassurance about Pakistan’s stability, added Lord Bruce. Indeed, Bajwa’s replacement, General Munir, inherits much unfinished business as he juggles the twin tasks of seeking an improved relationship with the US, and engaging China, which will pose a significant challenge to the US Indo-Pacific strategy and add to US-Pakistan tensions. Yet, while Pakistan’s relations with Washington are anything but stable former President Imran Khan acknowledged that Pakistan needed good relations with the United States – though Khan also likened ties to a‘master-servant’ or ‘master-slave’ relationship, adding: ‘We’ve been used like a hired gun.’Lord Bruce concluded by referencing commentator Syed Ali’s observation that US policymakers would do well to‘adopt a Pakistan strategy that transcends the need to forge a personal rapport with individual rulers and instead creates a more durable basis for bilateral engagement’.
Considering the US’s perspective on Pakistan, Wajid A. Syed, US Correspondent at GEO TV and The News, spoke of America’s interest in keeping its relationship with Pakistan the way it is now – that is, transforming rather than the traditional patron-client transactional partnership, in which Pakistan took advantage of its strategic location. Pakistan was always seen through the prism of other countries – eg ‘Af-Pak’ – in the sense that, to achieve anything in Afghanistan, it was necessary to go through Pakistan. Attempts by the US to develop and strengthen bilateral ties, in order to back the civilian government and encourage democratic values, backfired, said Syed, mainly because of Pakistan’s own internal political imbalances and infighting for power, as well as its heightened anti-Americanism. Regarding the current US administration, Biden has known Pakistan as long as he has been in Congress and his attitude towards the country reflects that. America was angered by the proof of betrayal when Osama bin Laden was found in Abbottabad, and such double-dealing has strained relations between the two powers. Syed drew attention to further downgrading of the ties under Donald Trump, with a diverting of US attention towards China, and having less dependence on Pakistan. The security of Pakistan’s nuclear assets is a key US concern, said Syed, as are its internal instability and social/economic woes such as exploding population growth, food insecurity and the political-religious divide. While the US-Pakistan relationship has gone from mistrust, to total distrust, to finding ways to work together on areas of mutual concern, for other critical geopolitical matters the US is relying on and supporting other stakeholders, especially India, as well as Japan and the UAE, which it prioritises over Pakistan. Indeed, the South Asian part of the Indo-Pacific strategy includes every country except Pakistan. So, concluded Syed, US-Pakistan relations are in ‘correction mode’ right now, though Pakistan’s level of importance has reduced significantly.
Pakistan’s security relations with the USwas the focus for Dr Ayesha Siddiqa, a Research Fellow at King’s College, London. Technically, the only meaningful US-Pakistan relationship, she insisted, is a national security and a military one. The desperate situation when Imran Khan was in power represented a very bad patch in the US-Pakistan relationship, which is far from where Pakistan wants it to be – that is, on a par with US-Israel ties. But what is seen as a bad patch, argued Siddiqa, is actually a reassessment of the security relationship,going back to 2012, and of how the US will position itself. The US has been shifting focus more towards the Indo-Pacific, and from non-state to state actors, namely China, as a core threat. So American national strategy in 2022 is driven by this primary factor.
Siddiqa said that reassessment happened on both sides, not because it was linked with one leader or another, but due to things that were happening in the army establishment (GHQ).She spoke of General Bajwa’s famous ‘enough is enough’ doctrine vi-a-vis the US but, since Khan’s ouster, there has been a ‘gentle reassessment’ of the relationship.. Reasons behind this reassessment include the India factor, always there in background. Given that Delhi is trying to maintain a more independent policy from the US and isengaging in relations with Russia, the US might be giving a message to India that it, too, can‘rebalance’ in South Asia. Regarding the ‘four drivers’ of the US -Pakistan relationship – Afghanistan; counter terrorism; nuclear proliferation;and China/ CPEC – there has been a re-ordering of goals, driven by needs on both sides.So, concluded Siddiqa, Pakistan is struggling to reposition itself and have a tactical divergence from both the US and China, since it relies on China for weapons supplies but is economically dependent on the West and the US.
Islamabad-based physicist, writer and activist Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy drew attention to the growing mismatch between the two cultures – Western-liberal, Pakistani-Islamic – and the impact this has had at state-level relations. When we speak of US-Pakistan relations, he said, we mean those between the US government and the Pakistan military. Today’s army, which runs Pakistan, is a very different army than the one that existed in the first two decades after Partition – then, it shared values with the Indian and British armies, whereas today, it is sociologically and culturallypoles apart, viewing India as a civilisational enemy. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and its aftermath,the army was made to change its values and became more Islamic and radicalised – it was no longer just a defender of territorial land but also the defender of ideological borders.
Why did the Pakistan army’s narrative on the US change? asked Hoodbhoy. He pointed to two main reasons. During the Clinton years, the US saw India as being far more important to its position in the world than Pakistan, which was disappointing to Islamabad. The second reason was that, after the USSR broke up and the US left the region, Pakistan used the mujahideen for foreign policy purposes. So it started the risky business of using extra state actors in Kashmir and Afghanistan. But blowback slipped out of its control. Hoodbhoy also saw the rise of religiosity in the lower ranks of the army as behind the souring of US-Pakistan relations. Pakistan has bought into the paranoia that the US’s sole interest in the region is to snatch Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and destroy Islam. Imran Khan capitalised on this, blaming the US for his ouster due to his support for Islam. As for the future, said Hoodbhoy, anti-Americanism is so pervasive and deep that the US may even trump India re. the level of vitriol it draws from Pakistan, and he did not see change happening soon.
Dr Mariam Mufti, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Waterloo, discussed the difficulties of ignoring the mistrust between the US and Pakistan, which has stemmed primarily from differing perspectives on what purpose this alliance serves for them both. In terms of foreign policy, she said, Pakistan has been largely motivated by India, having seen India as an antagonisticneighbour, whilethe US has been motivated by containing Communism, and more recently on China. This is important to understanding US-Pakistan relations, with both a Chinese and Russian presence impacting US-Pakistan relations. Dr Muftialso discussed the politics of aid-dependency and unbalanced civil-military relations, as well as differing attitudes between the elites and masses towards the US, with the educated, English-speaking elites who have vested interests in America being more pro-US, and the massesmuch less so. Sheconcluded with what she saw as key areas that might help to resuscitate the US-Pakistan relationship. These mightinclude the US shiftingits focus from security toengaging Pakistan in the non-security realm; finding common ground on issues such as climate change, technology and intelligence-sharing, andboostingentrepreneurship and people-to-people interactionrather than engaging in government-to-military interactions, which could resolve some of the cultural miscommunication between the two countries.
Looking at the US’s strategic pivot to Asia, as part of its intensifying security competition with China over Taiwan, Dr Julian Spencer-Churchill (Schofield), Associate Professor of Political Science at Concordia University, argued that US-Pakistan relations remain stable, due largely to favourable circumstances available to Islamabad. Regarding the possibility of a China-Taiwan conflict, he said the big question is: what will Pakistan doin the event of this? While Chinese allies such asMyanmar andNorth Korea are ramping up an anti-US position on the Asian littoral, Pakistan has notdone anything like this, which is a very good sign for the US, as it is a very neutralist position. The proliferation of neutral states, sustained by China as an alternate source of investment, market and weapons provider, has reduced the US’s ability to isolate target countries, argued Spencer-Churchill. In addition, Pakistan’s status as a democracyincreases the credibility of its moderate foreign policy, he said, while the complexity of Near Eastern and Southeast Asian international relations, and the ongoing war in Ukraine – from which the principal lesson that can be learned, he said, is that ‘neutrals matter’ – have made Pakistan a stable pivot in Asia.
Closing the event, TDF Chair Barry Gardiner said that the military is, and always has been, the key to power in Pakistan. Its fundamental principle is that close ties with the US are central to Pakistan’s geopolitical relevance – never more so than now, during a time of economic, political and ecological crisis. The US-Pakistan relationship has always been based on military and counter-terrorism cooperation, on strategic geopolitical influence in the region and, coming a very poor third, on development, trade and humanitarian investment. Yet, while the US has long been committed to stability and investment in Pakistan, it is veering towards collaboration with other partners in the region – possibly in response to Pakistan’s ties with China, which has aggressively invested in Pakistan through CPEC, and become Pakistan’s number one source of FDI.
Pervez Hoodbhoy is an Islamabad-based physicist and writer