Changing regional geopolitics makes resetting US-Pakistan relations harder
With the last of American soldiers packing to leave Afghanistan, post-9/11 US-Pakistan relations have come full circle. There is now a move to reset an alignment that has lost its pivot with the end of America’s 20-year war. The contours of a new relationship between the two erstwhile allies remains undefined.
It has been six months since the Biden administration took over, but there has not been any contact between the two countries at the highest level. Except for a few telephonic conversations between senior American officials and the Pakistani civil and military leadership that largely revolved around the Afghan conflict, there have not been any serious negotiations yet that could define the framework of the future course of bilateral ties.
While the foreign policy priorities of the Biden administration are more or less defined, there is no likelihood of any major shift in its policy towards Pakistan. Originally touted as a strategic alliance, it morphed into a transactional one over the years. For the past several years, Washington has seen Pakistan purely from the Afghan prism and there is no indication that the Biden administration has deviated from that policy approach.
There is no clarity in Islamabad either on how to redefine its relationship with Washington with fast changing regional geopolitics and a looming civil war in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. Prime minister Imran Khan recently declared that his government seeks to build a relationship on an “equal basis”.
He said Pakistan was willing to cooperate with the United States for peace in Afghanistan but it would not be a “partner in any conflict.” Pakistan has also made it categorically clear that it will not provide any bases for US counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan though some reports suggest that there has not been any such request from the Biden administration. Imran Khan’s populist rhetoric has further soured the environment.
The Afghanistan endgame has brought to the surface various fault lines that exited in the alignment between the US and Pakistan-- those which had last emerged in September 2001 following the devastating terrorist attacks on America.
The events of 9/11 led Pakistan’s return to America’s embrace. It was almost a rerun of 1979 when the Soviet invasion ended the decade long estrangement between the two erstwhile allies and brought them together to help the Afghan “Mujahedeen” fight occupation forces. Pakistan was then seen as the linchpin in the West’s battle against the communist block.
Most likely the relations are likely to remain largely transactional with some convergence of interest between the two in the Afghan peace process.
The CIA and the ISI collaborated in conducting the biggest covert war ever in history that forced the Soviet forces to leave Afghanistan. The collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War in 1990 also gave birth to a new world order.
Pakistan was no longer that important for the US, which emerged as the world’s sole superpower. This marked yet another period of separation between the two Cold War era partners and caused a deep sense of betrayal in Pakistan. For the next ten years, Pakistan suffered banishment.
It was another war in Afghanistan that became the pivot around which the new US-Pakistan partnership was built. The circumstances of the two unisons were, however, very different. Unlike the 1980’s when a strong convergence of interests had bound the two nations in a strategic relationship, the alliance that emerged after 9/11 was more out of expediency and compulsion.
It was often described as a “shotgun marriage.” Although it was projected to be a strategic partnership, in reality it had been a transactional relationship from the outset. Post-9/11 relations between the two nations could best be described as ‘frenemies.’
The post 9/11 US-Pakistan partnership, however, remained paradoxical and full of ironies. While the cooperation between Washington and Islamabad against Al Qaeda remained extremely effective, that cooperation was missing when it came to taking action against the Taliban leadership residing in Pakistan’s border regions.
Inevitably, the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan will have a huge impact on regional geopolitics and this has created a new alignment of forces. The growing strategic alliance between the US and India and the China-Pakistan axis reflect these emerging geopolitics. These will also be a strong factor in determining the future course of US-Pakistan relations.
Most likely the relations are likely to remain largely transactional with some convergence of interest between the two in the Afghan peace process. Pakistan seeks to have a broad-based relationship with the US. But the re-setting of the relationship with America will certainly not be easy.
It will be a challenge for the Pakistani leadership to maintain even a transactional relationship with its erstwhile ally. The cold response from the Biden administration and some unnecessary rhetoric from Pakistani leaders do not bode well for their future relationship.
– Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholar, USA, and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in Washington DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with militant Islam (Columbia university press) and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan (Simon and Schuster, NY). Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ.