US Elections: What can Pakistan expect?

President Hillary Clinton or President Donald Trump — both will have to deal with issues of terrorism, security
Published November 6, 2016

This piece originally appeared in Dawn's Sunday Magazine on Nov 6, 2016.

President Hillary Clinton or President Donald Trump — both will have to deal with issues of terrorism, security and civil-military disequilibrium in Pakistan as well as its complex relationships with China, India and Afghanistan. How will the new US administration respond? Images on Sunday explores what will likely happen…

On November 8, two days from today, the United States of America will elect a new president. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is leading the race but this has been an unpredictable election year. Despite being almost written off, businessman Donald Trump has — against all expectations — improved his position during the last week of the campaign. Most political pundits still agree that Clinton will eventually triumph, but this is a closer race than many of them had predicted even last month.

This long-drawn-out presidential campaign has been unusual also in the sense that foreign policy has received far less attention during the electioneering cycle than ever before. Yes, China and Russia have been broadly cited as threats, and how to deal with the so-called ‘Islamic State’ and terrorism were briefly debated. But this was mostly in terms of posturing about which of the candidates would be a ‘tougher’ president.

On the other hand, the policies of the presidential candidates with respect to South Asia were not raised at all. While the feat of capturing and killing Osama bin Laden was cited of course, Pakistan was not mentioned even once. This was probably a first for Pakistan at least in the last 16 years.

So, what will the change of guard in America mean for Pakistan?

Pakistan fatigue

On key policy issues, there is bipartisan consensus in the US, but the new administration will of course review foreign policy and reconfigure levers of US global engagement. It is unlikely, however, that there will be a major shift in US’s Pakistan policy. The new administration is not likely to disengage with Pakistan. But US policy will, in all probability, be tougher and more conditional than before.

The best way to define the broader American view on Pakistan is Washington’s growing fatigue in dealing with a long-standing ally and ‘frenemy’ at times.

Pakistan’s decades-old relationship with the US entered a new phase in the post 9/11 context, and evolved into a close partnership under Gen Pervez Musharraf. But that moment of bilateral partnership was transient. The two sides soon realised the limits of their engagement and divergence on how they envisioned a post-Nato Afghanistan.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during the first presidential debate — Reuters
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during the first presidential debate — Reuters

During President Obama’s current term, the relationship showed clear signs of exhaustion and distrust. There are growing voices in Washington D.C. — especially in Congress — that Pakistan is ‘not a reliable partner’ and ‘has harmed US interests.’ Pakistan has its own narrative that highlights the cost it has borne of allying with the US over the past 15 years in particular.

“Geopolitics and its compulsions don’t change with the change in administration,” points out Dr Rabia Akhtar, Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Policy Research, University of Lahore.

US policy circles, aided by sections of the media, continue to highlight Pakistan’s allegedly duplicitous role in its continued support to the Haqqani faction of the Afghan Taliban. The Haqqani network is seen as a group responsible for the deaths of American troops in Afghanistan.

Pakistan, meanwhile, points out the failures of US policy in the region and America’s inability to achieve stability despite 15 years of occupation. Peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, with Pakistan’s facilitation, were initiated in 2015 but also failed.

Other events that would precede the arrival of a new president in the White House include a bill by two US lawmakers in Congress to declare Pakistan as a ‘state sponsor of terrorism.’ This bill, drafted by Republican Congressman Ted Poe, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism, and Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, has very little chance of being adopted. However, it signals the fact that Congress takes a different view from the executive branch which appreciates the limits and complexities involved in managing the Pak-US relationship.

Will Pakistan be ‘abandoned’ like in 1990 when the Soviet troops pulled out of Afghanistan? Moeed Yusuf, Associate Vice President of the Asia Centre at the United States Institute of Peace, does not think so. “The result of the US election is much less likely to matter for [America’s] Pakistan policy,” he says. “On Pakistan, the trajectory is likely to remain the same — to keep Pakistan as a partner in the region despite the challenges.”

Daniel Markey, author of No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad, and a senior research professor at Johns Hopkins University confirms this view. “Pakistan is still very important to the US, and a new administration would want to deepen engagement if it had a reasonable expectation that doing so would advance US goals.”

But the US military and economic assistance to Pakistan since 2011 has declined in recent years. The payments of the Coalition Support Fund (CSF) has also witnessed delays and increased scrutiny. This trajectory will not change with the new administration.

“At the moment, there’s a lot of scepticism and frustration with Pakistan,” says Markey. “So basic trends favour reduced engagement in the near term, no matter who wins in November. The spending of greater resources and the focusing of greater attention on Pakistan seems unlikely. The early years of the Obama administration, when you had Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act and other top-level initiatives that marked a highpoint in US efforts in Pakistan, and with the surge in Afghanistan as well, those days are over.” 

William B. Milam, a senior policy scholar at Woodrow Wilson Center and former US Ambassador to Pakistan, adds a note of warning. “Most of what happens to the bilateral relationship depends on Pakistan rather than the United States,” he says. “Nothing is going to change if Pakistan continues to fiddle around with the Haqqanis.”

“Geopolitics and its compulsions don’t change with the change in administration,” points out Dr Rabia Akhtar, Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Policy Research, University of Lahore.

More of the same

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before a meeting with Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani in Islamabad on October 28, 2009 —AFP
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before a meeting with Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani in Islamabad on October 28, 2009 —AFP

Despite the growing distrust, the new administration is likely to continue a partnership with Pakistan on counter-terrorism, which is viewed as a ‘shared’ security interest. Engagement with Pakistan will be important for the new administration as US national security interests related to countering terrorism and violent extremism increase. Creating an atmosphere for nuclear security in South Asia and finding a way out in Afghanistan that would not result in an Iraq-like situation are also important goals for which Pakistan is needed.

“The United States will still seek to work with Pakis­tan on top security issues, starting with regional counter-terror operations,” says Markey. “And, at least, as long as the US is involved in Afghanistan, Washington will have an interest in trying to work with Pakistan to support US war aims.”

The next administration will feel “confident in working with Pakistan if the National Action Plan is implemented and the extremist groups operating on Pakistani soil are neutralised,” says Milam. “This could possibly alter the trajectory of bilateral relations.”

In recent years it has become apparent that the US has understood the necessity of creating an environment conducive for an agreement with the Afghan Taliban. Milam holds that the next administration would like to see what role Pakistan is willing to play in the Afghan peace process.

The pivot towards India

The Obama administration has entered into a strategic partnership with India which has raised alarm bells in Pakistan. For Pakistan’s policymakers — in essence the military establishment — India is the prism through which regional and global alliances are looked at.

“We are now closer and closer to India … it is after all a functional democracy, this is a real shift,” says Milam.

Both major political parties in the US view India as an American ally and have vowed to further strengthen bilateral ties. The Democratic Party platform says, “Democrats will continue to invest in a long-term strategic partnership with India — the world’s largest democracy, a nation of great diversity, and an important …power.”

The Republican Party platform, meanwhile, describes India as a “geopolitical ally and a strategic trading partner.” While supporting the economic reform programme of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, its reference to the growing intolerance in the country is fleeting: “For all of India’s religious communities, we urge protection against violence and discrimination.” Regardless of who wins on November 8, therefore, Pakistan should clearly understand that its historical leveraging of US alliance against India is coming to an end.

Given that Pakistan views India as its principal strategic adversary and military threat, the deepening Indo-US defence cooperation, in particular, has been a serious cause of concern. Pakistan’s contention is that the acquisition of advanced conventional weapons and systems by India will increase conventional asymmetries between the two rival neighbours.

Pakistan also has serious reservations about the waver granted to India by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 2008, which is seen by the military establishment as a license for expanding the Indian nuclear programme. Similarly, the Ballistic Missile Defence Programme is viewed as a destabilising development, as it can embolden India to go for preemptive attacks against Pakistan. The new Indo-US partnership may have a strong economic component but for Pakistan it is the widening asymmetry in military capability that is the real concern.

Markey holds that Pakistan is “understandably worried about US-India strategic cooperation,” even though the US government has long argued that “closer ties with India do not come at Pakistan’s expense, and vice versa.” Yusuf thinks that the tilt is becoming clear and that it is something Pakistan would need to deal with in the future. The next administration is likely to cement the US-India relationship further.

The US tilt towards India is a clear outcome of the growing power of China. China has not only successfully challenged Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy, it also owns at least 30 per cent of US foreign debt, which continues to give it leverage over the US.

US relations with India are driven, of course, by economic motives as well. With an Indian government under Modi eager to open doors and woo foreign investors, US businesses are backing this shift and see opportunities in the large Indian market as well as opportunities for cheaper manufacturing. The Pakistan establishment’s zero-sum manner of looking at the world would require adjustment since, whoever wins the November election, the Indian and American partnership will continue to grow.

“US leaders and policymakers are increasingly likely to see the region with a perspective informed by closer working relationships with their Indian counterparts,” says Markey. “Although this need not necessarily harm Pakistan, American sympathies — for instance, on the issue of terrorist attacks in India — and American interests, such as US trade and investment in India’s growing market, will undoubtedly make it harder for Pakistan to influence the policy debate in the United States, especially when it comes to pressing its case against India.”

In clearer terms, what Markey is saying is that economic interests will influence policy shifts.

In an interview given to the Hindustan Times, Trump had expressed his love for India but had refused to take sides. In fact, had he offered his mediation services to the two countries. However, like most of his off-the-cuff remarks during the presidential campaign, not much weight can be ascribed to this as an indicator of his policy directions.

US-India ties “should not be a cause of concern to Pakistan,” cautions Dr Akhtar. “India and Pakistan’s threat perceptions follow different trajectories.”

Enter the dragon

As its relationship with the US falters, Pakistan has been actively transforming its defence-centric engagement with China into an economic and infrastructure development partnership. China’s commitment to invest 51 billion dollars in building the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), connecting south-western China and Gwadar port in Balochistan, has been cited as a ‘game changer.’

Officially, the US has welcomed the CPEC and finds a measure of relief that it will be aided by China in the future to stabilise Pakistan’s fragile economy and prevent it from a meltdown. But CPEC will also increase Chinese influence in Pakistan, which surely will limit Washington’s historic domination of the region.

China is poised to exercise a more meaningful influence over Pakistan’s security posture, especially in dealing with the jihadists that have been operating on Pakistani soil. In the long run, Chinese influence could stabilise South Asia. During the recent India-Pakistan crisis, Beijing and Washington have collaborated to defuse the tensions. The next US administration would not want to lose its influence over Islamabad but the India factor might result in just that.

Markey confirms that the United States is not “opposed to the increased Chinese presence in Pakistan, especially on the commercial and economic front.” To the contrary, “US policymakers would very much like China to help stabilise and grow Pakistan’s economy because they see that economic stability as a way to reduce security threats. By extension, the United States does not perceive China’s role in Pakistani infrastructure development as inherently threatening either.”

However, this puts Washington a bit at odds with New Delhi, where Indians tend to be more wary about China’s role inside Pakistan. According to Markey, Washington does have at least two questions about intensifying China-Pakistan relations.

“First, US officials wonder whether the commercial deals underway will promote a broader set of Pakistani economic reforms in ways that would benefit its people and also promote FDI [Foreign Direct Investment] from non-Chinese sources, including the United States,” says Markey.

“At present, the Chinese deals with Pakistan lack sufficient transparency to judge.”

“Second, the United States will have mixed feelings about China’s presence in Gwadar, as over the long run it clearly opens the door to a growing Chinese naval presence in the Arabian Sea,” adds Markey.

Milam adds that China’s record in Africa suggests that “it does not always deliver on what all it promises.” While the US welcomes Chinese support to Pakistan, he cautions Pakistan should remember that Chinese “self-interest” is paramount in the growing economic relationship with Pakistan.

Of course, one can say the exact same thing about the US relationship with Pakistan as well.

In the context of a brewing global geopolitical competition between China and the United States, the extension of Beijing’s reach will create new complexity in its relations with Washington.

Yusuf, however, is more optimistic. “The US and China need to proactively find ways to complement each other and their assistance to Pakistan,” he says. “It could work well to stabilise both Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

Pakistan will have to play a delicate balancing act with the new US administration. The indications, however, are to the contrary. Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders promoting CPEC as some sort of a bulwark against an Indian threat and a replacement for ties with the United States will only complicate matters. This is why Pakistan’s diplomatic lens needs to be readjusted — it should maximise leverage with both allies instead of viewing diplomatic relationships as a zero-sum game.

And what about Kashmir?

The new US president might opt for a more stick rather than carrot approach when it comes to Pakistan: President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the Nuclear Summit this year — AP
The new US president might opt for a more stick rather than carrot approach when it comes to Pakistan: President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the Nuclear Summit this year — AP

During his first presidential campaign, Obama had highlighted how peace in South Asia was linked to the Kashmir dispute. Over time he realised the impossibility of convincing India to accept outside mediation on the issue. This is a hard fact well-known to Hillary Clinton and is not going to change.

“It’s one thing for Trump to offer mediation for publicity purposes,” says Dr Akhtar, “and quite another to understand that no such mediation on Kashmir will ever be welcomed by India irrespective of whoever sitting in the White House initiates it.” 

In the post-9/11 world, the US’s war on terror has provided a convenient framework for many countries, including India and Pakistan, to brand insurgencies as terrorism. India has leveraged the global discourse while Pakistan has been slow to appreciate the outlived utility of supporting militancy in Kashmir.

It is quite clear that when it comes to Kashmir, the next US administration is neither going to intervene nor will it support Pakistan’s stance on the support to militant networks. Hafiz Saeed, head of Jamaatud Dawa, has a 10 million dollar bounty on his head and his organisation has been designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation by the US government. Pakistan has banked on Chinese support thus far but that too is not expected to last indefinitely.

“We might see fewer funds for counter-terrorism with the new administration pushing Pakistan to act against outfits that launch attacks inside India,” says Dr Akhtar. “There could be conditions that make the release of critical funds linked to Pakistan publicly accepting and acknowledging their existence and ultimately dismantling terror networks.”

Nuclear stability is key

Of course, nothing is more important to the US than to maintain nuclear stability in South Asia. Pakistan’s critics in Washington call it ‘nuclear blackmail’ but this is where the next administration’s tasks are clear. Engagement on nuclear safety and stability cannot be divorced from the way the US-Pakistan relationship is shifting and the way Pakistan’s image has been projected globally. Pakistan has a major image deficit which plays an important role in the nuclear question.

According to Yusuf, the next US administration will continue to engage on this issue. He adds that despite nuclear arms, Pakistan’s insecure mindset has not changed, and that sets in a perverse incentive of expanding the nuclear programme.

Pakistan’s dilemma is that to mainstream its nuclear programme, it has to cut a deal with Washington. There is no way around it. China can’t get Pakistan into the NSG. It can only buy Pakistan time.

Pakistan should expect the next US administration to continue to be worried about the scare of ‘loose nukes’ and the potential for tensions between India and Pakistan to escalate to a nuclear-level conflict. A source suggests that Pakistan has already initiated a review of the Pak-US nuclear relationship to better present and argue its case to the next US administration. However, getting a policy change is linked, as ever, to how well Pakistan delivers on the security goals in Afghanistan.

It is time for Pakistan to undertake a comprehensive review of its foreign policy. The US will remain a dominant player in the region. Instead of being alarmed at the Indo-US alliance, it should find ways of re-engaging with the US with a strategic view.

Raza Rumi is a writer, journalist and policy analyst. Currently he is a scholar in residence at Ithaca College in the US where he teaches in the Honours Programme. He tweets @Razarumi

President Clinton

Huma Abedin who is tipped to be Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff has Pakistani roots — AP
Huma Abedin who is tipped to be Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff has Pakistani roots — AP

What to expect in US-Pak relations if Hillary is elected president

Hillary Clinton has plenty of experience of engaging with Pakistan. And not only through her husband, President Bill Clinton’s engagement with prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto and Gen Pervez Musharraf. During her visits to the country as Secretary of State — in one public appearance she was also dubbed Pakistan’s mother-in-law — she was seen as a tough negotiator but also as someone who was redrawing the parameters of bilateral relations by focusing on the civilian government.

Clinton’s memoir, Hard Choices, also recounts her meetings with Benazir Bhutto and later, her husband, president Asif Ali Zardari. It was under her supervision that the largest civilian assistance package to Pakistan — the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act — was approved. It is a separate matter that the conditions of the bill were dismissed by Pakistan’s establishment and its allies in the media as a hit on the national security goals and sovereignty of the country.

Her famous statement in 2011 that Pakistan could not keep “snakes in its backyard and expect them only to bite [its] neighbours” has become a benchmark for foreign policy objectives in South Asia. Yet, Clinton is also aware of the complexities and nuances of the difficult relationship.

Daniel Markey, a senior research professor at Johns Hopkins University, thinks that that the bilateral relationship has “reached a stage in which she [Clinton] would be clearer about our policy differences. So there’s a good chance that she would sound tougher.”

Whether the new administration is likely to change course on assistance programming or expanding the fight against the Taliban in ways that would reinforce that tougher message is unclear for now. Markey thinks that the approach would be clearer when Clinton, if elected, names individuals to various jobs within her new national security team.

“But there’s a good chance her administration would veer into a tougher stance,” says Markey, “partly as a means to improve US bargaining leverage with both Pakistan and the Taliban by signalling a long-term US commitment to bolstering the Kabul government.”

Clinton has a record of direct and tough parleys with Pakistan’s military during her stint as US Secretary of State. Many in Pakistan think, however, that the country would receive a fair hearing from President Clinton, given her personal engagement with the country.

Clinton’s top aide, Huma Abedin is of South Asian origin with a Pakistani mother and an Indian father. Some are tipping her to be Clinton’s chief of staff in the new administration. As Clinton’s trusted adviser, she will provide the necessary insights into the region as she did while serving as her deputy chief of staff at the State Department.

Clinton’s top priorities would likely be to work towards a safe US exit from Afghanistan and to ensure that Pakistan leverages its influence on Afghan Taliban to make that happen. Peace talks with Afghan Taliban are likely to be revived.

Markey, however, thinks that an ‘immediate’ or ‘radical’ policy change will not be on the cards as “a Clinton administration would have a lot of other challenges right out of the gate, and top officials would likely prefer to spend some time — maybe six to nine months — in reviewing Afghanistan and Pakistan policy before pressing any big changes.”

Most experts, however, agree that if there is a regional crisis that forces Washington to pay closer attention, such as an Indo-Pakistani conflict or a more serious breakdown in Afghanistan, then an immediate policy change may come.

While the US has historically worked with the military, Markey holds that “a Clinton administration would also wish to maintain engagement with Pakistan’s civilians, although it might also want to rethink past patterns of assistance and other programming in Pakistan.”

The new US administration will recognise the value in bolstering Pakistan’s fragile democracy but, at the end of the day, it is the military that can advance US national security interests. This will, as before, tilt the scales toward security-focused institutions and thereby deepen the civil-military disequilibrium in Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 6th, 2016