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The refracted relationship

Updated May 14, 2017 01:32am

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THERE are significant reasons for the maintenance of close and cooperative relations between Pakistan and the US.

Unfortunately, Washington has almost always conducted its relations with Pakistan as a function of America’s other strategic or tactical priorities of the moment. Since US goals and priorities change periodically, at times rapidly, Pakistan-US ties have often resembled a roller-coaster ride. One day Pakistan is America’s ‘most-allied ally’, the next its ‘most-sanctioned’ ally.

After being proclaimed a non-Nato ally in the post-9/11 ‘war on terror’, during the Obama years, Pakistan became the object of suspicion and hostility, and eventually the target of hundreds of US drone strikes, the Abbottabad intervention and the ‘accidental’ Salala attack, as Washington increasingly viewed Pakistan through the prism of Afghanistan and India.


Pakistan-US ties will be most fundamentally affected by the evolution in the US-China relationship.


In Islamabad, hope was generated by the early effusive call between Donald Trump and Nawaz Sharif. That hope has not been discarded yet; but some recent signals indicate that the US may again determine its posture towards Pakistan in the context of its goals in Afghanistan and its ties with India, Iran and China.

During his recent visit to the region, US National Security Adviser Gen H.R. McMaster reverted to assertions about Pakistani ‘safe havens’ for the Afghan Taliban as a convenient explanation for the military ‘impasse’ in Afghanistan.

Even if a few thousand additional US-Nato troops are sent back to Afghanistan, a foreign force of under 20,000, operating in support of a demoralised, untrained Afghan army, won’t be able to simultaneously arrest the current momentum of the 30-80,000 Taliban and defeat the growing numbers of the militant Islamic State group and its associated terrorists, like the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan.

There’s now an international consensus, to which Islamabad, Beijing and Moscow subscribe: peace will be restored in Afghanistan only through a negotiated settlement between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban, whose objectives are limited to Afghanistan, and that the focus of military operations in Afghanistan should be to eliminate the growing presence of IS and affiliated terrorist groups. Hopefully, the US will join this consensus. It would help greatly to align Pakistan-US postures on Afghanistan and counterterrorism.

From reports of McMaster’s visit to New Delhi, it appears the US will continue Obama’s endeavour to co-opt India as a strategic partner to contain China. Yet, unlike Obama, Trump may well be more sensitive to the impact of his India policies on China and Pakistan. The new administration may seek difficult quid pro quos from India, eg termination of its ties to Tehran.

Trump may accord priority to economic goals, such as restricting immigration from India and opening India’s protected market for US goods, services and investment. Or, India may have its own reservations about entering into a junior partnership with the US, particularly the implications for its ties with Russia and Iran.

For Pakistan, the litmus test will be to see how far US defence and technology supplies to India are sensitive to Pakistan’s security interests, since 70 per cent of India’s conventional and non-conventional capabilities are deployed against Pakistan. Open-ended US military and political support under Obama emboldened the Modi government to adopt an intransigent and belligerent position towards Pakistan.

India’s ongoing brutal repression of the popular pro-freedom Kashmiri protests, the daily violations of the LoC ceasefire, its ‘Cold Start’ forward military deployments, Pakistan’s ‘full spectrum’ nuclear and missile response, and the absence of dialogue between Pakistan and India, have combined to create an environment where the danger of another Pakistan-India conflict is real and present. Such a conflict could escalate to the nuclear level. Trump’s offer of mediation has been welcomed by Pakistan but rejected by India. Hopefully, he will persist with this mediatory initiative.

The emerging Pakistan-US relationship may also be impacted by the growing US-Iran tensions. Although Washington is unlikely to scrap the nuclear agreement with Iran, Trump and his generals seem determined to arrest and reverse Iran’s rising power in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Syria, and curb the capacity of the Iran-backed Hezbollah to threaten Israel from Lebanon or Syria’s southern borders.

An informal alliance is being forged between Israel, the US and its GCC allies. The Saudi invitation to several Muslim countries, including Pakistan, to participate in meetings with President Trump in Riyadh outlines the ambitions of this putative alliance. The situation could become acute if a hard-liner is elected to replace President Rouhani in the forthcoming Iranian elections.

The nature and dynamics of this new configuration in the Gulf and West Asia will have profound and inverse implications for Pakistan’s relations with Iran, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and the US, on the other. Pakistan can avoid damage to one or the other relationship by remaining aloof from this impending confrontation and, if possible, promoting mediatory diplomacy to defuse the causes of the Iran-Saudi (and US) tensions.

Pakistan-US ties will be most fundamentally affected by the evolution in the US-China relationship. The Obama administration’s proclaimed ‘pivot to Asia’ was designed to ‘contain’ China by deploying most of the US Navy to the Pacific and building a string of alliances around China. India was to be built up as part of this containment strategy. Pakistan’s security interests suffered collateral damage as Washington opened the floodgates of advanced weapons and technology to India.

However, the ultimate shape of US-China ties under Trump is not yet clear. After some disturbing early pronouncements, it appears that Trump has developed a respectful relationship with China’s President Xi Jinping at their Mar-a-Lago summit. The US and Chinese leaders are cooperating to contain the danger from North Korea. There is hope, at least on China’s side, that a trade war will be avoided and a cooperative relationship forged on investment, commerce and other areas of common interest.

A cooperative US-China relationship would be a major positive development for Pakistan. Besides facilitating the implementation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, it would ease Pakistan’s differences with the US on Afghanistan and India.

Dr Kissinger’s 1971 secret trip to Beijing, facilitated by Pakistan, led to the creation of what is now the “most important bilateral relationship” in the world. Pakistan has an enormous stake in the preservation of this relationship.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

Published in Dawn, May 14th, 2017

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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


Comments (25) Closed



TbH May 14, 2017 01:50am

Too many angles and too many confusions. In the end self interests play a big role. India has identified its self interests and thus has managed credible diplomatic and progressive economic relationship with all key players that include US, entire west, GCC, China, Israel, Iran, Russia etc. Even Turkey which is close friend of Pakistan is keen to improve trade with India

Security is just another dimension and where does Pakistan stand in remaining is the question to be answered

ThE_REAL_M.EMAD May 14, 2017 02:09am

With Pakistan and India's internal political issues, Bangladesh is fast coming up as an alternative superpower to counter China in Asia.

Princess_of_DHUMP May 14, 2017 02:10am

Yawn: Same old rhetoric. If it hasn't worked in 70 years it won't work now either

Majid May 14, 2017 02:32am

While India is busy building up her warfare capabilities but its the Kashmir issue that is going to be her Achilles' heal in coming years.

Alba May 14, 2017 03:32am

America does not need to co-opt Indian. A hundred thousand Indians are hoping and praying to attend America universities. As for the China relations Chinese have been living in America for almost 170 years.

Alba May 14, 2017 03:38am

" Unfortunately, Washington has almost always conducted its relations with Pakistan as a function of America’s other strategic priorities." _ There should be other reasons? The question is not what can America do for Pakistan; the question is what can Pakistan do for America? Why does America need Pakistan? Give Washington some reasons. Maybe things will change.

well meaning May 14, 2017 03:39am

" India may have its own reservations about entering into a junior partnership with the US," not going to happen . India is the worlds biggest democracy not an underling. India has always voted against american position in UN. india does not care about Iran except for oil. Russia is old hat, not relevant in multipolar world .

R.Kannan May 14, 2017 08:30am

Trump campaigned on anti Chinese platform but has turned out to be the most pro Chinese President in American history. He will be forced to balance this with some action against Chinese allies. Pakistan should be worried about this aspect.

merit May 14, 2017 08:46am

First and foremost priority of Pakistan should be to improve governance. Incompetent leaders manufactured by narrow minded dictators have brought shame to the country and wrecked havoc upon poor masses.

Ravi Chandran May 14, 2017 08:51am

As Michael Corleone would say"it is not personal, it is business". It is very true in international diplomacy. If Pakistan learns that art, it will be good for its future. If it is going to be mired in the same pattern of thinking as exhibited here, it is bad news. Of course, CPEC will come to the rescue!

PrakashG May 14, 2017 09:21am

I haven't seen the movie La La Land; but, reading this article gave me a close experience.

brr May 14, 2017 09:39am

@PrakashG excellent analogy

anshul May 14, 2017 10:41am

Dreams n wishes are free for everyone enjoy.

Anil May 14, 2017 10:45am

@PrincessofDHUMP convince them or confuse them...

Ind May 14, 2017 11:20am

Hits bulls eye. Obvious from comments of readers from other side of border.

Shahid May 14, 2017 11:48am

Very good, as always. Thanks for presenting a well-rounded dissection of the situation.

Freedom May 14, 2017 11:56am

Pakistan view its relationship via Kashmir prism. It views Afghanistan relations as compared to India.

However its wrong if other countries do tha same to Pakistan.

aleem May 14, 2017 01:02pm

@Ind Agree. Indian friends do react badly when truth is presented before them. India has got the biggest number of unemployed in the world, most migrants spread all over the world, biggest number living below poverty line in the world and still the Indians talk about as if they have conquered the world. There is still a long way to go but their attitude reminds me of a mirasi (village singer) who has become all of a sudden a bit wealthy and does not know how to behave.

Rems May 14, 2017 01:58pm

Diplomats and officials like this is biggest problem of PAK. Only think of arms, war, strategic partnership etc but not a single word for economic cooperation, improving life of citizens in whole article. Looks like it's not a all priority of Pak government or army.

Trollslayer May 14, 2017 02:11pm

The former ambassador lives in former times.

embarr May 14, 2017 02:40pm

India has saved Trump a big embarrassment by rejecting his offer to mediate between India and Pakistan. Even Pakistanis are secretly happy that India has done so.

tochibawa May 14, 2017 06:28pm

@Trollslayer You are spot on.Self wooven cocoon does not let such people move with times.Time forgets them & they continue with their self created importance.

pathanoo May 15, 2017 01:33am

The more I read the more confused I got. Hard to figure out what is being said and what is meant? I can say with absolute confidence, that Pakistan's realtionship with America will be mostly be determined by it's support and protection or elimination of all terrorism no matter how pakistan tries to explain it away. Pakistan has NO POLICY and is looking to one or the other benefactor for it's interests. This way it is always waiting for the benefactor's direction as to which way to conduct itself. That's not a policy that would serve it well. Has not so far and never will. Being a trouble maker only will not get it any where.

Harmony-1© May 15, 2017 02:28am

@Aleem - You are right. It too reminds me of an old uncle who has come into some money late in life but still doesn’t know how to dress, nouveau riche behave that way!

Osman May 15, 2017 06:09am

Well done, as usual.