Revisiting the US Pakistan relationship
Among all the important bilateral relationships that Pakistani leaders must manage, few have the footprint or impact on day to day life in Pakistan like the bilateral relationship with the United States. As the two-decade engagement of the Americans in Afghanistan nears its formal completion, it is increasingly important for both countries to undertake an honest assessment of the range of opportunities that each offers to the other.
In the recent past, these kinds of assessments have either become loaded with prescriptions that tend to focus on all the negative aspects of the relationship (such as “do more”), or become distracted by the rhetoric from “big stage” moments (such as the very successful visit of Prime Minister Imran Khan with President Donald Trump in July last year).
This is why last week’s release of the Middle East Institute report on Pakistan-US relations, “Seizing the Moment for Change: Pathways to a Sustainable US-Pakistan Relationship” offers a welcome change. Though it contends with security as being a crucial element of the bilateral dynamic between the two countries, it contains in it the seeds of a genuinely different approach and a fresh new lens from which the two countries should be viewing the future.
Written by former State Department analyst and long-time Pakistan observer, Dr. Marvin Weinbaum, and civil servant-turned academic, Dr. Syed Mohammad Ali, the report draws on the expertise of an array of brilliant academics and practitioners, young and deeply experienced, to identify a number of opportunities for the two countries to take forward a relationship that has had to bear the burden of (and been partially responsible for) forty years of conflict in Afghanistan.
The first sign of a real pulse in the MEI report is a sentence that catches the eye for its sheer bravery and clarity. The authors note:
“Incremental US reliance on India to serve as a strategic counterweight to China creates insecurities not only in Pakistan, but also in China.”
Of course, the elephant in the room in any analysis of US-Pakistan relations is the utter absence of any real imagination or creativity— outside of the now six-decades old security-centric dynamic between the two nations. The MEI report attempts to disentangle the future from this toxic past by identifying an array of modern opportunities.
In Pakistan, this sentence represents a truism. But in Washington DC, where any mention of India has come to accompany a paralysis of clear thought, it is borderline revolutionary. The recent events in India will no doubt have a profound impact on the many honest and decent observers of the region that serve the wider US strategic, military and diplomatic community. But it is the kind of clarity encapsulated in this sentence, that will nudge along the process of Washington discovering its soul once again when it comes to South Asia.
Of course, the elephant in the room in any analysis of US-Pakistan relations is the utter absence of any real imagination or creativity— outside of the now six-decades old security-centric dynamic between the two nations. The MEI report attempts to disentangle the future from this toxic past by identifying an array of modern opportunities. The most exciting among them is the report’s fixation on renewable energy (particularly solar and wind), and the demonstrated interest of US renewable energy firms in the Pakistani renewables sector.
The report notes that “US firms have recently initiated a dozen wind energy projects in Pakistan. There are, however, opportunities where the US government could further facilitate this process by creating a mechanism to mobilize finance for clean energy projects within Pakistan along the lines of the recently created US-India Clean Energy Finance Task Force.”
Narrower bilateral trade agreements, (a trend that increasingly seems like the future, especially as the Brexit process has indicated for UK trade relations with other countries), is also noted by the authors of the US-Pakistan report, as a viable alternative to the more grandiose ambitions of a classical free trade agreement of the kind Pakistan has with China.
The juxtaposition with China is only natural, but unlike the tendencies of State Department officials like Alice Wells, who recently went on an anti-CPEC tirade during her visit to Islamabad, the report advocates a policy approach to CPEC that helps Pakistani policymakers distinguish good deals from bad ones, and for Pakistan to evolve in how it balances its relationships with these two important and vital world powers.
The report revisits the Reconstruction Opportunity Zone (ROZ) issue, that once was the very core of the Kerry Lugar Bill support, and suggests that ROZs could “promote economic development in the border areas of Pakistan and require a certain level of Afghan components be included into Pakistani products to receive duty-free treatment.”
On the trade and economic front, perhaps the boldest of the report’s suggestions is to “expand the US Indo-Pacific Strategy to include Pakistan, thereby helping to expand major investment and other projects, including energy sector projects.” The India lobby in Washington DC will be up in arms at these notions— but that should not stop responsible American interlocutors from considering them seriously.
The Weinbaum-Ali report also does not shy away from more sensitive issues. Recognizing the legitimate concerns of Pakistanis that see the US tilt toward India, the report observes that “seeing the State Department and other relevant federal agencies adopting a regional approach to discussing human rights and democracy challenges in South Asia would help avert such discussions from being viewed as a convenient cudgel to admonish Pakistan.”
On sum, the MEI report on US-Pakistan relations reminds us of the importance of fresh thinking about the relationship. For all the problems, bilateral ties are seemingly burdened with, the two countries represent among the most vital partners for a range of countries, including Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran and of course, China. Since The Century Foundation’s Jago Pakistan report of 2015, there have been very few efforts to flesh out the issues in the relationship. Officials in the US State Department and the Pakistan Foreign Office need to focus on innovative new approaches to the relationship. The Middle East Institute’s effort is a good prompt for governments in both countries to get to work.
*Mosharraf Zaidi is a columnist and policy analyst. He works for the policy think tank, Tabadlab.