Annual International Conference Beyond Europe: Toward a New Global Order
The Faculty of Political Science and Journalism
Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland
5-6 December 2019
Pak-US relationship has a convoluted past and an extremely uncertain future. Depending which lens of international relations one uses to view this association, one arrives at a different set of conclusions. The Americans have called this a transactional relationship. They conveniently blame Pakistan for not coming up to their expectations and not providing the anticipated results despite billions of dollars in aid that they have provided. Pakistanis complain that the Americans have used them on several occasions to achieve their own strategic ends, disregarded the enormous sacrifices they have made in the unenviable role of a junior partner that has suffered the fallouts of the war in Afghanistan. They have always been unceremoniously discarded, once they were no longer relevant in the American calculus. They bitterly add that the volume of aid received pales in light of the huge costs that they continue to pay.
This paper is an academic research investigating Pak-US bilateral relations over the years and what shape it may adopt once the US leaves Afghanistan. It posits that Pakistan should reset its relations with the US and all other state parties with shared interests on the basis of legitimate national aims and objectives.
Keywords: Pak – USA bilateral relations, Afghanistan, Taliban
States formally establish bilateral relations when they recognize each other as sovereign states, establish embassies and exchange diplomats. The diplomatic relations between countries are governed by the Vienna Convention of 1961. Realistically speaking bilateral relations are not based on legal instruments and noble sentiments alone. They are grounded on pragmatic national interests, which are rarely the same. Some issues are of course common in nature such as notions of mutual security, economic interests or a common ideology e.g. communism, pan Atlanticism, pan Europeanism etc.
Pak-US bilateral relations make for an interesting case study. It would not be unfair to state that despite a long association spanning many decades, there is little by way of commonality of interests in. Over the years it has been shaped by the push and pull of divergent expectations instead of mutual interests. Most of the time, these bilateral relations have been based on security concerns albeit of different nature. During the Cold War, the US made Pakistan an ally within the overall framework of its policy of containment to stop the global expansion of the Soviet Union. By becoming part of US led military alliances, Pakistan found an effective way of keeping archrival India at bay. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the locus of Pak-US relationship acquired a single dimension i.e. the defeat of Soviet Union in Afghanistan. This was in the interest of both countries again for different reasons. The US wanted to deliver a coup de grâce and seal the fate of its Cold War rival – the USSR; while Pakistan sought to prevent at all cost the nightmare of a two front scenario i.e. Soviet motor rifle divisions rolling down the mountain passes in the North and racing down to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea and the Indians prizing away its part of Kashmir.
After 9/11, Pakistan had to once again partner with US albeit under duress. The US wanted to defeat the Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Pakistan was given no choice in the matter. It was ordered to unconditionally support the American invasion of Afghanistan or be bombed back to Stone Age. The leadership in Pakistan found it convenient not to demur and accept all American demands as a matter of expediency. In the bargain Pakistan suffered grievously in the long run from the fallouts of the war in Afghanistan. What was expected to be a cakewalk turned out to be a long drawn war. After eighteen bloody years, the Taliban are far from defeated and the US backed government in Kabul hold over the country is only tenuous.
In wake of the changing ground realities, the US policymakers want to withdraw but there is fear in official circles that a hasty withdrawal would result in the collapse of the Kabul government. The face saving exit that appeared to be looming across the horizon after Trump became the president of the US seems yet too far. Trump’s dilemma seems no different from the one faced by his predecessor. Obama wanted to leave Afghanistan because he had estimated the cost of the Afghan war to be US $113 billion annually. This was an utter waste of money and Obama had given clear cut timeline in his second term to achieve a clean break but despite his strategy of a troop surge and then an early evacuation could not materialize.  In 2015 he had to bow to his generals’ demand and put a hold on the withdrawal plan. Trump also wants to leave but midway during his first term he is not very sure. Peace talks have spluttered due to this lack of clarity at the policy making level. Despite their constant complaints that Pakistan is not doing enough, the centrality of Pakistan in the Afghan end game has always been part of the American foreign policy thinking. It is no wonder then that US special envoy for the region Zalmay Khalilzad finds it useful to engage Pakistan to facilitate the conduct of peace talks with the Taliban office in Doha, Qatar.
Theoretically speaking, Pakistani and the US foreign policies are predicated on two different notions. Pakistan has always for strived for survival, while the US has ever since the Second World War remained busy in the constant quest to remain a preeminent world power. Serious observers of American foreign policy detect a change in its position. Despite the fact that militarily the US remains the most powerful nation on earth with wide ranging global interests in all parts of the world particularly the Middle East and Europe, yet sometimes appears to be withdrawing power. His announcement to withdraw troops from Northern Syria has actually upset the Israelis. This tendency to withdraw is particularly pronounced in Afghanistan. This urge for withdrawal is based on the realization that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable and that it should be brought to an expeditious end and monies and efforts should be diverted to more profitable ventures.
Before his entry into the Whitehouse, Trump had been a business tycoon and his entrepreneurial thinking is often reflected in his foreign policy decisions. His declared national security policy is America First is based mainly on protecting US business interests. He is building a wall on its borders with Mexico to stop the inflow of cheap labor from South America. He is engaging China in a trade war because he thinks that the tariffs are unfairly skewered in the favor of the Chinese and he wants his country’s NATO partners in Europe to foot their own security bills because he reckons that they pay too less. He has been quick to withdraw from international, multilateral and bilateral treaty obligations, which he thinks are not in his national interests such as the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) with the Russian Federation, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran and the international climate change treaty despite domestic criticism.
US and Pakistan foreign policy interests intersect in Afghanistan. US wants to leave behind a stable Afghanistan that does not provide a safe havens to those whom they perceive as terrorists. Pakistan wants an end to a long drawn insurgency in its own country, which it believes has its epicenter in Afghanistan. It assumes that peace in Afghanistan will help bring peace and stability in the region and in the longer run reduce the cost of security and improve its economy.
So in the emerging milieu, Afghanistan is common foreign policy objective for both Pakistan and the US but for different reasons.
Brief History of Pak – US Bilateral Relations
Pak-US relations owe their genesis primarily to their national security concerns. After the Second World War, the US wanted to contain the rise of communism all over the world. The main component of this foreign policy dictated that they build up military alliances all over the world against the Warsaw Pact. They reinforced this policy by building a strong nuclear deterrence.
As a new country in the post-colonial age, Pakistan found itself struggling to find its feet. The Pakistani leadership both civil and military were more than happy to become partners in US led military alliances. Closeness with the US provided it with the much needed military and economic security particularly against its eastern neighbor India.
The Pak-US bilateral relations can be divided into two distinct phases, which can be categorized as an Age of Closeness (Beginning Cold War and ending in Afghan Jihad) and an Age of Divergences (Post 9/11). Actually none of these two time periods can be defined of total convergence or divergence. In both cases it was a bumpy ride with their highs and lows and agreements and disagreements. In the so-called age of closeness Pakistan became part of a mutual defense agreement in May 1954. Later the same year Pakistan was happy to become part of South East Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO). Pakistan then had the unique honor of being of both South East and South Asia. In 1955 Pakistan on the basis of being nearer to Middle East became part of Baghdad Pact. This pact was re-named Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) after the military coup makers in Iraq opted out of it in 1959. The same year, Pakistan signed another bilateral agreement with the US to reinforce CENTO.
With the American military aid, Pakistan was able to build up a reasonably strong military force equipped with the state of the art weapons. In 1965 War, Pakistan used its impressive military prowess to fight India to a standstill but it came at a cost. The Americans put a stop to all military aid. The tanks and aircraft that they had given to Pakistan were meant to be used against the communists and not India.  Pakistan’s relations with the US underwent a cooling down period; only to blossom and flourish once again after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.
Although Afghanistan had never been a colony per se but it had been the scene of the imperial Great Game during the nineteenth century. The rulers of Afghanistan were constrained to abide by the dictates of the neighboring great powers i.e. Czarist Russia and British India. Its freedom of action was further constrained because being a landlocked country, its main outlet to sea was through British India. After the second Anglo Afghan War (1878-80), the Afghan foreign policy was run by the British. Afghanistan formally became an independent state in 1919 after the Treaty of Rawalpindi. In 1921 Afghanistan began to run an independent foreign policy.
Americans were slow to warm up to the newly independent Afghan state. A small country with little known natural resources did not inspire much interest in the US. President Roosevelt granted diplomatic recognition to Afghanistan in 1934 but there was a general reluctance to place a resident diplomat in Kabul. As a stopgap arrangement, the Minister in the American Embassy in Tehran was concurrently accredited to Afghanistan. An American legation was finally opened in Kabul in 1942. During the Cold War era, the Americans tried to invest in the Afghan development and communication infra-structure projects to obtain a foothold in a country which was increasingly coming under the Soviet influence but with limited success.
After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas day 1979, the Americans seized the opportunity to invest in the Afghan Jihad to defeat the USSR. The Afghan Mujahidin or holy warriors were trained and controlled by Pakistan, financed by the Saudis and equipped by weapons smuggled in by the CIA. The US strategy of defeating the Soviet forces through an effective guerrilla campaign paid off. In 1989, the battered and bruised Red Army quietly retraced its steps across the Amu Darya to return home without any fanfare. The decade of fighting a losing battle had depleted the national exchequer and sounded the death knell of the Soviet Empire. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Americans also followed suit and hastily withdrew. They left the feuding warlords to fight among themselves. A bloody civil war ensued. Out of this chaos emerged the Taliban. These students of the madrasahs were able to bring some kind of normality into war-torn Afghanistan. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and UAE recognized the new Taliban government. The undoing of Taliban was giving shelter to the elusive Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden (OBL) and his shady organization – the Al Qaeda. The Americans officially blamed this organization for the 9/11 attacks on mainland US.
In a fit of rage, the US forces invaded Afghanistan to extract vengeance from Al Qaeda and their hosts the Taliban. The Americans were able to diminish or at least break the back (as they claim) of the Al Qaeda. Even among the Americans there is mixed opinion about the destruction of the Al Qaeda. Taliban in any case have resurged and today according to different estimates control 40 to 60 per cent of Afghan soil. The Taliban in Afghanistan know that time is on their side and are in no hurry to conclude peace with the US on unfavorable the terms with the US. They have so far refused to talk directly with the government in Kabul, which they consider a mere puppet of the Americans and therefore not worthy of any formal engagement. The Americans also know that their time is up in Afghanistan but would not like to leave in a disarray. At a minimum they want a stable government, army and police once they exit. They may leave behind some residual forces just to keep an eye on the situation. They obviously don’t want a repeat of 9/11 and a chaos that may mark a pre-mature departure.
After the invasion of the US forces, instability has only increased in Afghanistan. The Americans have found it convenient to blame Pakistan for supporting their alleged proxies i.e. the so-called Haqqani network. Yet at the same time they want Pakistan to play a meaningful role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. Pakistan on its part refutes the American allegations and blame the government in Kabul in allowing the terrorists from operating from its soil to perpetrate acts of terror inside their country. In a bid to stop the free movement of terrorists, Pakistan is erecting a barbed fence all along the nearly 2,500 km long international border with Afghanistan.
Pakistan feels that it has done its best by arranging meetings with the Taliban (the Murree process) but these efforts have been stymied because of malevolent acts such as leaking the news of the death of Mullah Umar, while the meeting was still in progress in July 2015. Also the killing of Afghan Taliban commander Mullah Akhtar Mansoor inside Balochistan province in Pakistan was done to embarrass the government of Pakistan. Pakistan wants the Americans to be fair and not support the Kabul government in blaming Pakistan for all their ills. Pakistan have their limitations with the Taliban and do not wield the kind of influence that the Americans like to believe.
Pak-US relations have rapidly changed after the new government of Imran Khan came into power in August 2018. The first high level official to visitor was the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in September. Pompeo talked positively about a reset in their relations with Pakistan. Pak-US relations had hit rock bottom at that time. At that time the Trump administration had already stopped payments of the Coalition Support Fund (CSF) for services rendered by Pakistan in the so called War against Terror and also suspended the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program for Pakistani soldiers. Trump administration had also announced that they would not allow IMF dollars to be given to the new government in Pakistan as the bailout package to come out of a looming deficit of nearly 12 billion dollars. Meanwhile the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) was also breathing down Pakistan’s neck. If Pakistan is not able to satisfy them that they have shored up its anti-money laundering (AML) architecture, there is a likelihood that it would be placed in the black list that would mean that it would be slapped with crippling financial sanctions.
Ever since Imran Khan took over as the prime minister in August 2018, there has been a perceptible improvement in Pak-US relations. The IMF has given Pakistan a bailout of US $ 6 billion, and the FATF has so far not placed Pakistan into the dreaded black list. Prime Minister Khan has visited the US twice this year in July and September and has got personal audiences with President Trump. On each occasion he got along famously with the American president. He met Trump for the first time on 22 July 2019 and was given a red carpet reception at the Whitehouse. There were photographs of a smiling president with his wife and an equally delighted prime minister. The icing on the cake was Trump’s offer to mediate in case of Kashmir. Trump reassured his Pakistani interlocutor that the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wanted him to do that. A very happy prime minister told the American President that he would have the prayers of a billion people if he could resolve the issue.
The Indians denied that such an offer was ever made pouring cold water on Pakistani expectations of the US president mediating and finding a reasonable solution to this intractable issue. Although Trump repeated his offer at mediation in his second meeting in September nothing came of it. In fact events would prove that Modi had his solution for Kashmir. On 5th of August he formally annexed the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir by repealing Articles 370 and 35 A repealing its special status and bifurcating it into two Union territories. An indefinite curfew was imposed and there was a communication lockdown that still remains in effect. Prime Minister Khan in his address to the annual session of the UN General Assembly remonstrated to the world about Indian excesses in Kashmir but he might as well have been speaking to a group of dead of people. Trump had been part of public meeting in Houston with Modi to ostensibly woo the Indian diaspora for his re-elections. His administration declared that the actions by Modi with respect to Kashmir was an internal matter and refused to take an official position on it. Some congressmen and women did express their concerns over the communication lockdown in occupied Kashmir but that did not amount to an official censure.
Options for Pakistan
For Pakistan, options in the affairs of international relations are fairly straight forward. It needs to survive in a tough neighborhood and avoid being diplomatically isolated. Inevitably it must have good relations with all countries of the world specifically the US without compromising on its national interests. Peace on the borders is essential for peace inside the country. In fact internal stability and regional stability complement each other. Pakistani policy makers understands perfectly well that for local stability they have to keep the world’s only superpower, which has a formidable regional military presence in good humor. They also understands very clearly that they have to abide by international norms by not allowing their territory to be used for any activity that can be perceived to be remotely associated with terrorism. In this regard they are trying their best to overhaul their financial system to prevent any money going to terror outfits.
Keeping in mind the American urgency to bring peace to Afghanistan, the Government of Pakistan has done its best to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. The Taliban of course are quite independent minded and are not really eating out of the Pakistani hands as is commonly perceived. The Afghan government is concerned because they are not part of the peace talks. One major hurdle in the Afghan peace so far has been the Taliban reluctance to negotiate directly with the Afghan Government in Kabul. There is some movement in the regard also. It is being speculated that announcement of a prisoner swap by the Kabul Government, could possibly lead to direct talks with the Taliban. On the cards is the release of three Taliban commanders from Afghan prisons. This includes Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani in lieu of two westerners – an American and an Australian professor. This announcement has come in the backdrop of a high level visit by Pakistani officials including the foreign secretary and the DG ISI to Kabul.
Other hiccups in the Afghan peace talks is it’s on again and off again nature. Since September Afghan peace talks have been on hold after President Trump abruptly tweeted that he was cancelling an invite to the Talban to a hitherto unannounced meeting at Camp David. He was upset on the killing of some American soldiers in Afghanistan. Pakistan has not lost hope and is doing its best to nudge the peace forward the negotiations between the Taliban office in Qatar and the US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. At the same time Pakistan wants to move out its financial dependence on the US and the Bretton Wood financial institutions. Its diversifying sources of funds to other countries such as China, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Pakistan is also trying to do its best to mend fences with Iran in a bid to not become a party to the conflict in the Middle East.
Clearly Taliban scent victory and they want it on their own term. Clearly they want to be part of the next government or best be the government themselves once the Americans leave. Pakistan has to use all its diplomatic skills to play a delicate balancing act. Also Taliban are not the only non-state actor operating in Afghanistan. The Khorasan franchise of the Islamic State (IS) is also quite active here and its footprints are already being felt in Pakistan. This is a worrisome development and all regional stakeholders including Pakistan and the extra regional ones like the US are united in their stance to defeat the nebulous elements of the IS in the area. The IS is splintering. It has lost most of the territory it controlled in Syria and Iraq and its leader Abu-Bakr Al Baghdadi has been killed but his successor has already been announced. But this does not stop the spread of the splinter groups into the lawless areas of Afghanistan and by extension into Pakistan.
In this developing situation
Pakistan carefully treads a very taut diplomatic tightrope. Any misstep can
result in a precipitous fall with long reaching effects. Pakistan wants peace
in the region and a peaceful and friendly Afghanistan as its western neighbor. Pakistan
wants to benefit from peace in Afghanistan and it will do its best to engage
with the Afghans both in the government and those not in power such as the
Taliban and all other legitimate stakeholders. This includes regional powers
such as China, Russia and Iran and extra regional powers such as the US. The
Afghanistan issue is not the only one on its foreign policy cards. After
Afghanistan returns to normality in a few years’ time, Pakistan looks forward
to build up a strong and robust relationship with the US. It has clearly
indicated that it will not fight America’s wars any more in the region or
anywhere else. It wants a partnership based on equality and on fair
expectations and mutually beneficial convergences. The Pakistani leadership has
expressed such desires very clearly in all its policy statements. The only hope is that it
is reciprocated from the other side as well.
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