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Pakistan-US ties have to come out of the trap of war

Shah Mahmood Qureshi with Mike Pompeo

Last week, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s special assistant for national security, Moeed Yusuf, said that the US had requested Pakistan to ‘help’ defuse tensions in the Middle East.

In the first place it is difficult to understand why the US would make such a request considering the fact that Pakistan’s relations with Iran are not strong enough for playing that role. The request also does not reflect the real strength of Pakistan-US ties. What it shows is that America’s ties with Pakistan remain limited to ‘wars’, be it in Afghanistan or the one that might erupt, in Iran.

Following Donald Trump’s decision to freeze Pakistan’s coalition support funds, the reason why the same President has ‘warmed up’ his relations with Pakistan could be the on-going negotiations on Afghanistan—something that the US President seems to want to conclude before the up-coming Presidential election in the US.

In other words, the on-going thaw in the otherwise cold US-Pak relations is only a reflection of the fact that Pakistan-US ties remain a derivative of US’ military involvement in the region, something that aligns equally well with other countries in the region, particularly Pakistan’s eastern neighbors.

Pakistan realizes the current limitation of its ties with the US. On December 25, 2019, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US, Asad Majeed Khan, said in an event hosted by the Washington-based Sustained Dialogue Institute that while Pakistan considers its ties with the US to be "important and consequential," it would like to see the relationship move beyond "the security pillar" to establish equally strong bonds in education, commerce and trade, giving it a horizontal expansion and vertical depth. But to what extent this can be achieved is a moot question.

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, was in the US on January 17. Whereas his tweet said that the purpose of this visit was to expand Pakistan’s ties with the US beyond security related matters, there is no gainsaying that the current thaw is based on a fundamental shift within the US Establishment on Pakistan.

The fact remains that Pakistan’s image in the US remains negative, due to which an effort from within the US towards developing a truly strategic relationship with Pakistan has not emerged, and remains a remote possibility not only due to the negative image, but also due to the changing US interest dynamics in the region.

Given the US’ increasing strategic focus on the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region, there is every likelihood that US interests would not deeply align with Pakistan. For one thing, Pakistan in no way features in the US’ ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’, for another, even if Pakistan did, it would only create a strategic dilemma; for, the ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’ is mainly, if not solely, about ‘containing’ China.

Therefore, even if Pakistan, at some point of time in the future, becomes relevant for the US in the Indo-Pacific region, it would remain an extremely limited engagement, and that, too, limited to security spheres, a sphere that Pakistan is trying to come out of.

Besides that, while Foreign Minister Qureshi stressed that he would highlight Kashmir, there is no gainsaying that Pakistan’s ‘Kashmir diplomacy’ has not really gained any traction whatsoever in the US political system. While reports of human rights violations continue to regularly appear in the US media, the US government has not taken up this issue either with India directly, or on behalf of Pakistan, Trump’s offers of mediating on Kashmir notwithstanding.

As such, while bi-lateral ties surely need a shake-up, they cannot happen when the ties are restricted to personal relationships between leaders. In other words, without a major build-up at the bureaucratic levels, real thawing cannot take place, nor can the relationship achieve a significant level of depth, taking it beyond the fragile convergence around ending the US’ longest war in Afghanistan.

Indeed, how Pakistan’s relations with the US travels in the future will greatly depend on the conclusion of the war itself, and the way the US sees Pakistan’s role in the peace process.

If the US continues to see Pakistan through the lens of ‘terrorism’, a lens that even US President Trump wears, a permanent thaw will remain an impossibility.

Only when both countries find a genuinely common ground for going beyond the usual list of demands and claims can a genuine relationship based on trust can be built.

Having said that, a probable US exit from South Asia would create a vacuum in bi-lateral relations, and Pakistan would have to quickly find a way to fill it, a goal that Pakistan’s current leadership does not seem to be unmindful of.