After the Sherman Visit: Pakistan-US Relations
This time it was a Middle Eastern television (MET) network. Like Pakistani media who had asked the visiting US State department official Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman the inevitable question, the two MET anchors asked Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan about US President Joe Biden’s phone call — the one that still hasn’t come.
The intense symbolism of the US President’s missing phone call is not lost on anybody. The answers to the questions Khan and US officials are constantly being asked are equally revealing. The State department’s deputy secretary said she knew there was ‘some resentment and frustration’ in Pakistan but that the US President was ‘busy these days.’ It is an admission of Biden’s priorities. Her answer was no different from the one Pakistan’s National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf had given to a Pakistani channel some months ago.
The somewhat miffed Yusuf’s answer was a taunt to the Biden administration. That Biden didn’t call was a strange signal to Pakistan at a time when the US repeatedly pointed to Pakistan as the key government insofar as working and influencing the Afghan situation was concerned. The less candid response, though a diplomatically correct one from Sherman of course, could not acknowledge that her president is not too happy with what the Pakistani Prime Minister has repeatedly and publicly said about the United States’ blunders in Afghanistan!
Therefore, the issue of the Biden phone call is indeed a window into the present state of Pakistan-US relations.
The state of Pakistan-US relations remains complex. If the no phone call is a symbolic downer for Pakistan, the negative news recently circulating within Pakistan’s highest policy-making platforms indicated that the United States, through the IMF, was trying to pressurize Pakistan — calling for the imposition of tougher IMF conditionalities, and triggering further inflation for a people already badly hit by sky rocketing inflation. Another US-triggered pressure point that Pakistan’s officials often allude to is Pakistan’s retention on the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)’s grey list.
Undoubtedly, Pakistan-US relations remain in a frigid state. But that there is now a candid exchange of concerns and engagement between the two somewhat estranged governments, is a silver lining.
While the Sherman visit, one of the Biden administration’s senior-most officials since he came to office, did not iron out bilateral differences, it signalled continued dialogue with greater appreciation of Pakistan’s significance within the South and Central Asian region.
In India, a somewhat emphatic Sherman rather undiplomatically told her seminar audience that she was visiting Pakistan for a very narrow purpose. She assured them that there was no question of returning to a broader relationship. Neither is the US interested in doing so nor is she thinking of it, Sherman said. She also went the extra mile to praise India’s “great leadership” as the UNSC president…ironically despite India’s obvious anti-Pakistan bias during its month-long term, to keep Pakistan out of all UNSC discussions on Afghanistan.
The ‘narrow purpose’ she said was Afghanistan. The US was keen to know what was happening in Afghanistan and what needed to be done. As if justifying its continued contact with Pakistan, the US official explained that in formulating Washington’s policy toward the Taliban and against terrorism, everyone needed to be on ‘the same page.’ Interestingly, this near apologetic tone regarding her Pakistan trip underwent a change while in Pakistan.
In Pakistan, after her meeting with Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Sherman’s tweet conveyed a different impression. The importance of the bilateral relations was underscored.
In Pakistan, to convey parity in engagement, the Prime Minister did not meet the US department official. Yet in keeping with the critical security issue of Afghanistan, one principally handled by the Pakistan military command, the army chief did meet Sherman.
Undoubtedly, Pakistan-US relations remain in a frigid state. But that there is now a candid exchange of concerns and engagement between the two somewhat estranged governments, is a silver lining. Both Washington and Islamabad recognize that neither deadlock nor breaking off is feasible for either.
Of the irritants that are out in the open, four are noteworthy. One, the post Taliban takeover has prompted Washington’s policy-making and policy influencing circles to blame Pakistan for its thundering defeat and failure of its two-decade long engagement in Afghanistan. From Pakistan, the repartee is led by the Prime Minister himself. He reminds Washington of its own blunders. This exchange continues and sullies the diplomatic and political environment.
Two, the United States with the current loss of influence in Afghanistan does find itself in a strategically weak position in Asia. The QUAD provides no answers for the loss of influence in Afghanistan and the growing influence of China and to some extent of Russia, in Afghanistan’s neighborhood and beyond.
Three, for Washington, Pakistan’s clear message of “absolutely not” regarding providing military bases to the US is a worrying one. Equally clear is Pakistan’s message that China-Pakistan strategic ties will only further grow…no question of any downgrading.
Four, for Washington, as India’s strategic importance as a counterweight to China grows, Pakistan’s tensions with India continue unabated against the backdrop of an acutely deteriorating political and human rights situation in Indian-administered Kashmir. Inherent in this equation are growing Pakistan-US tensions. Significantly, the India factor, as US foreign policy guru Henry Kissinger recently wrote, contributed to the United States’ major strategic failure in Afghanistan.
Interestingly, for now Afghanistan remains a key factor and also a key determinant in the future of Pakistan-US relations. Afghanistan is of strategic importance to both Pakistan and the United States for a variety of reasons. With vastly reduced Indian presence and influence in Afghanistan and by extension India’s role in spreading instability and terrorism in the region, especially in Pakistan, the interesting question would be: can Afghanistan, which became the trigger for deteriorating Pakistan-US relations, now become the reason for improvement of trust and ties?
As always, despite hiccups, the Pakistan-US engagement is bound to continue and acquire a less cantankerous texture.
*Nasim Zehra is an author, analyst and national security expert.