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With India Opting For ‘Strategic Autonomy’ The US Is Back To Wooing rival Pakistan – Analysis

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But commentators suggest that the US should shed its geostrategic approach and adopt a human-centric perspective if it is to succeed in Pakistan.   

Since the United States is finding India to be a recalcitrant partner, given New Delhi’s penchant for “strategic autonomy”, Washington has reverted to its old policy of cultivating Pakistan, India’s rival in South Asia.  

In the past, Pakistan had its uses for the US, and it could be useful now, but the South Asian nation will pose new challenges to the US that stem from its domestic situation as well as its international links. 

Pakistan is politically unstable and volatile, and is a hotbed of toxic religious schisms and extremism. Its close links with China, manifested in the US$ 62 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), will make it difficult for the US to ride roughshod over it. China has now supplanted the US as Pakistan’s chief external partner, though in bilateral trade, at US$ 5 billion, the US is number one.     

It is for these reasons that commentators on US-Pakistan relations have been advising Washington to reassess old ways and search for new approaches taking into account the changed ground realities.                

The US may be having short and long-term plans. At the moment, Washington’s aim is to convey to New Delhi that it can hit where it hurts the most. Although India has been having a long-standing dispute with China over the border, and a geopolitical rivalry has emerged, it is Pakistan that remains the bee in the Indian bonnet. It is Pakistan, and not China, which has primacy in India’s international and domestic politics. India is hell-bent on isolating Pakistan in the international arena on the issue of cross-border terrorism. In the domestic arena, an anti-Pakistan stand and not an anti-China stand that earns electoral dividends. Therefore, what the US does to Pakistan will have a greater impact on Indian thinking than its moves vis-à-vis China.  

Bilawal’s Visit  

Washington’s lurch towards Pakistan was evident during the recent visit of Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari to the US. At a function organized by the Pakistani community, on September 27, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was effusive. Referring to the unprecedented devastation caused by the floods in Pakistan he said: ” We are here for Pakistan just as we’ve been during past natural disasters, both to meet the immediate needs and, as I said, looking ahead to rebuild.” Blinken pointed out that the US has marshaled over US$ 66 million in immediate humanitarian assistance. He also pointed that Pakistani expats and the US business community had together sent US$ 27 million in essential goods and services. 

“We will continue to stand by Pakistan, to stand by its people, today and in the days to come, because that’s what we’ve done for each other in both directions through much of our shared history. And we have worked together to confront global threats. We continue to work closely on counterterrorism issues,” Blinken said. 

However, he appealed to Bilawal to see the “importance of managing a responsible relationship with India.” Recognizing Islamabad’s close links with Beijing, he asked Bilawal to “engage China on some of the important issues of debt relief and restructure so that Pakistan can more quickly recover from the floods.”  

In his reply, Bilawal was equally effusive. “I absolutely agree that the Pakistan-U.S. relationship is not only resilient, we have stood the test of time.  And we’ve proved throughout history that when we work together, we achieve great things.  And I believe that when we don’t work together, then we fumble, then we falter, then things go wrong,” Bilawal said.

Army Chief’s Weeklong Visit

Bilawal’s visit was followed by a week-long visit to the US of the powerful Pakistani army chief, Gen.Javed Bajwa. This is a critical visit as in Pakistan the army is “The Establishment”, and the ultimate arbiter on domestic and international issues. On October 4, Gen.Bajwa met Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in the Pentagon where he was given an “enhanced honor cordon” with the national anthems being played.  

Bajwa was slated to meet the National Intelligence Director Avril D Haines, and CIA Director William J Burns and address think tanks. A meeting with Secretary of State Blinken was also on the cards.  

Pakistan and the US have been having close military relations since the Cold War when Pakistan was part of the anti-Soviet, US-led pacts like CENTO and SEATO. The US roped Pakistan into its post-9/11 ‘War or Terror’. But the two sides did not see eye to eye on the way the war was conducted. Pakistan’s plea that the war had made Pakistan a victim was ignored by the US which accused Pakistan of clandestinely supporting the Taliban and Al Qaida chief Osama bin Laden while taking millions of dollars from the US for the war against them. 

However, even when public opinion in Pakistan turned against the US, the Pakistan army kept its links with the Pentagon. When Prime Minister Imran Khan launched a tirade against the US, accusing it of plotting to overthrow him, army chief Gen. Bajwa did not endorse it.              

Washington had recently given Pakistan US$ 460 million to maintain the F-16 fighters it had given earlier. When India protested, State Department spokesman Ned Price said: “These (India and Pakistan) are both partners of ours with different points of emphasis in each,” thus delinking Pakistan and India.

Taking a softer stand on Pakistan’s anti-terrorism cooperation, the US State Department said in August 2022, that Pakistan “has taken some action against militant groups and UN-designated terrorist organizations in accordance with its National Action Plan against terrorism. However, the implementation of UN sanctions against these entities is uneven. The United States continues to urge Pakistan to take decisive action against these groups while seeking opportunities to work together with Pakistan in areas of mutual interest, such as counterterrorism and border security.”

Words of Caution 

Writing in New York Times Madiha Afzal of the Brookings Institution said that the US should “disentangle” itself from the Pakistan military. “While Pakistan’s military is perceived as more efficient than its civilian institutions, it has repeatedly shown that its incentives are not aligned with America’s. Pakistan’s dominant military has kept active the specter of potential conflict with India, and its intelligence services have cultivated relationships with an array of dangerous non-state armed actors,” she pointed out. 

Afzal argued that a “civilian-focused U.S. policy will help Pakistan begin to shift the balance away from its military and will, in the longer term, bolster Pakistan’s democracy. While that certainly won’t guarantee liberalism in Pakistan, it can in time curb approaches favored by the military — including relationships with jihadists — that have proved harmful for the region and Pakistan itself.”

However, Afzal warns that: “There are risks to this approach. The military and intelligence services in Pakistan won’t be thrilled about this downgrade in their status, and they may choose to retaliate by reducing cooperation in areas like intelligence sharing or by limiting access to Pakistani airspace for counterterrorism operations. Disengagement (with the military) also risks pushing Pakistan further into China’s arms, which is not inevitable.” 

In the mater of counter-terrorism cooperation, she pointed out that international watchdogs like the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) would be more useful than unilateral US sanctions. FATF’s gray-listing of Pakistan in 2018 had prompted it to crack down on Lashkar-e-Taiba and other jihadist groups, Afzal pointed out.

Writing in Newslines Dr. Syed Mohammed Ali of Johns Hopkins University said that the US can create a more sustainable relationship with Pakistan if it transcends its “security-dominated bilateral engagements” and focuses on a “more sustainable, human-centric relationship.” The goal should be about “human security” rather more than “geopolitical security”, Dr.Ali said.

China Factor

In an article in Time on May 29, 2022, Oxford scholar Hasan Ali warned that the US would be up against a powerful pro-China factor in Pakistan. He pointed out to Bilawal’s comment: “I am particularly proud that all three generations of my family have been firmly committed to the Pakistan-China friendship.” 

According to Hasan Ali, the consensus across the political spectrum is that the future belongs to China, and with it, Pakistan’s own future. 

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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