11th Sep, 2022. 10:15 am

Pakistan-US relations: engage and resist

Historically speaking, the interests between the United States and Pakistan have never really converged for long and have in fact diverged more than once. The relationship has been established on an ad hoc basis right from the beginning and continues to be transactional in nature. Pakistan has always been a utility partner; when the utility ends, the relationship pauses. The engagement is compulsion driven from both sides. On more than one occasion, both the states have pursued divergent interest trajectories sabotaging each other’s interests at regional and international levels.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 has once again triggered the need to revisit the relationship. US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, when responding to questions on the Afghan war, had to give assurances to the Congress on Pakistan, “this is one of the things that we are going to be looking at in the days and weeks ahead – the role that Pakistan has played over the last 20 years but also the role we would want to see it play in the coming years and what it will take for it to do that.”

Since 2001, the relationship has been shaped by the situation in Afghanistan. The Pak-US relations are neither easy to understand nor easy to describe, and Afghanistan has further complicated it. ‘Uneasy marriage of odd couple of modern international relations’ is how the relationship is referred to. The outlook is largely negative. The US in Pakistan is viewed as a fickle partner and Pakistan has responded by trying to court a superpower, do it’s bidding, but at the same time protect its core interests.

David Hale, Diplomatic Fellow at the Wilson Centre and Ambassador to Pakistan from 2015-2018, rightly said, “Pakistani leaders have to protect their national interests. We can’t make them behave the way we want them to behave.” This is the crux of the issue and has resulted in growing distrust between the two. The US does not trust Pakistan and Pakistan, over the years, has become an increasingly anti-American country. This anti-Americanism is largely because of the US foreign policy towards Pakistan, but also incorporates reservations over the US foreign policy trends towards the Muslim world at large. Lately, Pakistan’s domestic political parties are using anti-US sentiment to prop up support. The US is portrayed as both exploitative and oppressive in its relations with Pakistan.

Pakistan’s unending dependence on the US has depleted its options to a point that getting out of the bind is impossible. Pakistan lacks what it takes to free itself from it. More importantly, the elite of Pakistan, i.e. military, political, and economic, are very comfortable with it. Until recently, the powerful elite has successfully suppressed any revolutionary change. The love-hate relationship with the radical ideologues is also a two-edged sword that has worked well for Pakistan despite the challenges. It has allowed it to acquire manoeuvring space for itself with the US. The million dollar question is whether this is sustainable. Are the ruling elite of Pakistan for the first time in its history are on the back foot? This may also change the trajectory of Pakistan’s foreign policy. Several other countries have witnessed this paradigm shift, Iran and Turkey being two prime examples.



However, for now, Pakistan is getting more comfortable with the idea of hedging. Hedging is to be nicely located between balancing and bandwagoning and is a state’s third strategic choice. The ongoing global power shifts, the most prominent of which is the rise of China, the relative decline of the US, Russia-China nexus, Russia’s rising global assertiveness, and the complete state of disarray and confusion the European Union is in, has given the middle powers the option of using the hedging strategy to the fullest. It involves policies that advocate a mixture of return-maximization and risk-contingency planning that circumvents the dominance of major powers. In some ways, an insurance seeking behaviour where countries having many constraints and compulsions create options and choices by simultaneously cooperating with two more powerful states who are also in a state of competition. The Belgian scholar Jonathan Holslag calls it the return of hard hedging meaning regional powers playing to both camps, the US and China, to avoid taking sides in order to maximize their options and autonomy.

India is a textbook case of using hard hedging in its foreign policy or maintaining a foreign policy option of strategic autonomy. The most obvious examples are of her taking a velvet divorce both from Moscow and Tehran to get into Western favour, the re-cultivation of Iran (revival of Chabahar initiative by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi), India had even refused to join the US-led alliance against Russia over the Ukraine war while also maintaining close political, economic and defence relations with Moscow. “In effect, New Delhi is using leverage with both Washington and Moscow to achieve its strategic interests,” says Zamir Akram, former Ambassador of Pakistan. Thus, India is using the core principle of hard hedging which is to both engage and resist.

Pakistan realizes the importance of its relationship with Washington, but at the same time has policy options now that never existed in the past, allowing it to revisit its relations both with the US and India. Back in August 2017, Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, in his conversation with US Ambassador David Hale, had said, “Pakistan does not want material or financial assistance from the US, but needs to be trusted and treated with respect.” More than that, Pakistan is desirous of peace in Afghanistan and is ready to work towards it, but can’t be held responsible for it. This continues to be the case; however the US, despite irrefutable evidence of its blunders in Afghanistan and commanding generals admitting that they had tried to fight a war without a functional strategy, blames Pakistan for its failure and rushed exit from Afghanistan. As quoted in the book ‘The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War’ by Craig Whitlock, “many of those interviewed described explicit and sustained efforts by the US government to deliberately mislead the public… They said officials at military headquarters at Kabul – and at the White House – routinely distorted statistics to make it appear that the United States was winning the war, when that was plainly not the case.” [Foreword XV page].

Interestingly, while Pakistan is gearing towards a geo-economic thrust in its foreign policy, geo strategic challenges are mounting; the Afghanistan situation being the most pertinent followed by Modi government’s belligerence, his Kashmir policy, and India’s strategic convergence with the US against China. These elements make the shift trickier.

Pakistan for now is standing its ground, the question is will Pakistan be able to sustain this and move towards the path of growth and prosperity or yet once again get sucked into the quagmire of conflict in the region? The policy options for Pakistan are to remain committed to ‘connectivity’ and ‘balance’. ‘Engage’ and ‘resist’ should also be Pakistan’s strategy to counter superpower rivalries.

The writer is Rector MiTE

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