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The refracted relationship

Updated May 14, 2017 01:32am

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