NEVER mind the mind-numbing controversy around the new GDP figure. And never mind the dilemmas the government is caught in as it seeks to engineer growth in the next year in the midst of a stiff IMF programme. There is something brewing that is largely escaping people’s attention, and it could turn out to be a game changer of an event, if it goes through.
Note the increasing pace in contacts between the Pakistan Army and its key people and the new Biden administration. On April 28, army chief Qamar Bajwa spoke by telephone with Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, and discussed “matters of mutual interest, the regional security situation including the latest developments in the Afghan peace process, the [US troop] drawdown and bilateral cooperation in various fields”, according to a statement released by the army. The statement added that the secretary “pledged to further enhance bilateral relations between both the countries”.
The readout from the American side was a little more reserved. It said the two sides “reaffirmed the importance of the US-Pakistan relationship”, and that the secretary “expressed appreciation for Pakistan’s support for Afghanistan Peace Negotiations” before adding that the two sides “also discussed the drawdown in Afghanistan”.
The needle seems to have moved, even if slightly, on the matter of the Pak-US relationship.
It concluded by saying both sides “discussed the importance of regional stability and the desire for the United States and Pakistan to continue working together on shared goals and objectives in the region”. The American readout made no mention of enhancing bilateral relations.
This followed another conversation less than a month earlier, on March 21, between both officials in which “Secretary Austin reinforced the United States’ commitment to maintaining a strong bilateral defence relationship with Pakistan” as his country steps up the pace of withdrawal of all remaining 2,500 troops from Afghanistan, according to a readout issued by the US Defence Department. “Secretary Austin noted that he looks forward to further cooperation between the United States and Pakistan in areas of common interest”, the readout said in its concluding sentence.
Then last Sunday we heard that Moeed Yusuf, the new national security adviser in Pakistan, met with his counterpart Jake Sullivan in Geneva, and the following day tweeted that “[b]oth sides agreed to continue the conversation to advance cooperation in Pak-US bilateral relations”. The day after this meeting the army chief had another telephonic contact with the defence secretary, following which the American side issued another readout in which he “reiterated his appreciation for Pakistan’s support for Afghanistan Peace Negotiations and expressed his desire to continue to build on the US-Pakistan bilateral relationship”. The needle seems to have moved, even if slightly, on the matter of the bilateral relationship.
So we have three telephone calls between the army chief and the US defence secretary in the last three months, and one face-to-face meeting between the NSAs of both countries. Accompanying this is a string of contacts between lower-level officials, as well as between the army chief and the American ambassador, all of them on record.
These are not frivolous contacts. Something is going on. The last time the army chief spoke with the defence secretary was in March of 2020, when the Trump administration was in office and Mark Esper held the position. That call came about three weeks after the signing of the joint declaration between the governments of the United States and Afghanistan, and the signing of the US-Taliban peace agreement. The readout after that call mentioned only American “commitment to a long-term, mutually beneficial security partnership with the government of Pakistan”. There was no mention of bilateral ties, only a reference to “continued close cooperation with Pakistan into the future”.
The increasing pace of contacts between Pakistan and America, at such high levels, points to something significant that is being discussed. And the mention of bilateral relations in the readout from the American side in the call that took place immediately following the NSAs’ meeting in Geneva suggests some headway has been made by the Pakistani side.
Here is what we can say for sure. The Americans want Pakistan’s cooperation to ensure a smooth drawdown of troops to meet their deadline of Sept 11 of this year. After that, they want a stable Afghanistan where fighting does not flare up again. And they see Pakistan’s cooperation as critical in pursuit of both these goals. The Pakistani side, represented in this dialogue by a figure no less than the army chief himself, wants to “enhance bilateral ties” with the United States, which includes both security-related cooperation (diplomatic words for arms deals) and “other areas” which means economic aid. Hence the recent talk of a pivot to “geoeconomics” by the Pakistani government.
Read: US talking to Pakistan, others for maintaining access to Afghanistan
The ramifications of what can come out of this dialogue can be far reaching (assuming it comes to that). The hybrid experiment in Pakistan has hit an impasse. Organically, this government cannot grow its way out of the doldrums, everybody knows that. And the longer it stays stuck in the doldrums, the more its future is doomed. For the hybrid experiment to have a fighting chance at survival, it needs to deliver a few years of a boom of the sorts that Pervez Musharraf gave, or later Nawaz Sharif did, and a 4pc growth rate does not get you there.
All booms in Pakistan have had the same ingredients — an overvalued rupee, low interest rates, high government spending, tax relief for industry. A little cash support, some loosening of the IMF conditions and exit from the FATF grey list is all it would take to make this happen. Recall that Musharraf’s package of support came in 2002 and by 2004 the economy was registering a 9pc growth rate. That’s how fast this whole thing can turn, given great power backing. The Americans seem to be keeping the focus on Afghanistan, whereas the Pakistani side is repeatedly underlining the “bilateral relationship”. They both have good reasons for their stance.
The writer is a business and economy journalist.
Published in Dawn, May 27th, 2021