Afghanistan can be a stepping stone for improved Pakistan-US relations
Pakistan and the United States’ frosty relations seem to have thawed ever since Prime Minister Imran Khan assumed office in August this year. He had decided against attending the UN General Assembly in New York in September, reasoning that he would rather stay at home to focus on the economy.
Now, three months down the road since PM Khan formed his government, Washington is singularly concerned about the fate of Afghanistan. US President Donald Trump said he hopes to resume peace talks with the Taliban to succeed in Afghanistan as the war-torn country goes to vote.
Recently, Trump wrote to PM Khan, requesting him for Islamabad’s utmost cooperation in the war against terror. Meanwhile, Zalmay Khalilzad, a US-appointed special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, paid his third visit to Pakistan between December 4-5 for the purpose. For all practical reasons, Washington only values Islamabad’s clout over the elusive militant group, which once ruled the country and was among three countries to recognize it.
For the smooth functioning of Imran Khan’s government, the US remains crucial for Pakistan. Ali Jahangir Siddiqui, the former ambassador to the US, will be succeeded by ambassador Asad Majeed Khan to represent Pakistan in Washington.
Peace in Afghanistan is a shared concern for both Pakistan and the United States with social media attacks and counter-attacks, and viewing the other’s intentions with suspicion, a thing of the past.
Trump’s letter to PM Khan highlights the need for mutual collaboration, with Islamabad and Washington appearing to be on the same page. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi was in Kabul on Saturday for a trilateral meeting which was hosted by Afghanistan and involved China and Pakistan. The continued deployment of American troops in Afghanistan until law and order returns in the country is paramount for the stability of the region.
The exchange of positive overtures between Pakistan and the US, specifically for Afghanistan’s future, must not be the only common interest between the two countries. Trump has severed longstanding military to military cooperation, while the White House has pursued a pro-India stance all along on nearly every issue troubling New Delhi. What would have the US’ reaction been had Pakistan reacted coldly to India’s overture of opening a visa-free corridor for Sikh pilgrims?
America providing India with generous access to its latest technologies -- ranging from nuclear to military hardware -- is having an adverse impact on Pakistan and on regional stability. Besides, isolating Islamabad for New Delhi’s sake pushes Pakistan closer to Tehran. For the sake of India, the White House chose to bypass it from Iran-related ‘crushing’ sanctions, which could have affected the vital infrastructure development of the Chabahar port, while also helping the regime with financial liquidity.
Islamabad, too, must de-hyphenate its relations with Washington from Beijing. If India can maintain friendly ties with Iran and the US both, why can’t Pakistan? Over the past two decades, the gulf between the two states has widened and Islamabad has taken the easy route of sliding towards Beijing instead of preserving its prized relationship with the US. From a secret approval of drone operations in tribal areas to the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, several reasons were used to cover-up Pakistan’s failures.
Notwithstanding the advantages of Pakistan’s relationship with China, the US’ clout in the global system is far superior to any other superpower of the time. PM Khan’s recent interview with The Washington Post sends many positive signals. Given his moratorium of not talking to foreign media, the interview hints at the importance which the prime minister accords to the relationship with the American people and their government. Every time the US emissary visited Islamabad, the premier spared time for him.
Even though the US considers Pakistan relevant only until the Afghan quagmire is resolved, it must pursue a more broad-based approach to the revival of the valued relationship. Imran Khan’s remark about not being a ‘hired gun’ is as much applicable to China as it is to the US. Beijing’s investment in the country must never be construed as a strategic alliance against India or the US.
Besides prosperous Pakistanis residing in the US, thousands of nationals working in the private and public sectors at home have received education from American universities, often through scholarships. The people-to-people bridge has never been exploited to an optimal level. Leaving the occasional irritants aside, Pakistan and US’ ties can be repaired with hard work and thoughtfulness.
Let strenuous efforts for peace in Afghanistan be the starting point in working towards reviving the relationship between Pakistan and the US with dignity and overlapping interests. While the winds of xenophobia are blowing hard in the US, Pakistan must not allow vested interests in the media and the political arena to promote anti-American sentiments. National interest, instead of emotions or religion, must be the basis for improved bilateral relations.
• Naveed Ahmad is an investigative journalist and academic based in the GCC with a career in writing on diplomacy, security, and governance. Besides other honors, he won the Jefferson Fellowship in 2000 and UNAOC Cross-Cultural Reporting Award 2010. Twitter: @naveed360