Revival of contact between Washington and Islamabad marks positive change in troubled relations

Revival of contact between Washington and Islamabad marks positive change in troubled relations

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There are some tangible signs of a thaw in US-Pakistan relations after recent contacts between the two countries at a senior official level. But the terms of the new partnership remain undefined. The nature of a future cooperation between the two erstwhile allies is still under negotiation.

Relations between Washington and Islamabad have been on a slippery slope for a while but it hit a new low in the last few years, particularly after President Biden’s taking over the White House and America’s humiliating exit from Afghanistan. Pakistan’s former prime minister Imran Khan’s tough stance and some irresponsible comments had also made it difficult to move forward. The change of government in Pakistan has certainly improved the environment.

Recent high-level engagements between Washington and Islamabad have also helped break the ice. A lot of importance is being assigned to the meeting between Pakistan’s foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto and US secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington last week. It was the second interaction between the two in the past four months. The visit to Washington by the Pakistani foreign minister was aimed at finding ways to build relationships on a sustainable basis following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

In order to move forward, the two countries should start meaningful dialogue at the senior political level to draw a framework for a new relationship.

Zahid Hussain

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif had a brief interaction with President Biden in New York at a reception the US president hosted for world leaders attending the UN General Assembly session though there was no one on one meeting between the two leaders. Several senior American officials have also visited Islamabad in recent months. These exchanges are aimed at resetting ties, which is still important for both countries despite the widening divergence of interests and the shifting sands of regional geopolitics.

The 75-year history of US-Pakistan relations is full of paradoxes. Historically the engagement between Washington and Islamabad has been narrowly framed, dictated either by short-term security interests or the imperative to deal with a common challenge. For the past two decades, Washington has seen Pakistan purely from the Afghan prism.

With the end of two decades of American war in Afghanistan, the post 9/11 alliance between the two countries also came to an end. In changing regional geopolitics, the priorities for America have also changed, making the resetting of the relationship harder. Almost all US aid to Pakistan, both civil and military, has been stopped. From a key strategic ally, Pakistan was seen by Washington as an adversary.

But the recent re-engagements have raised hopes of a breakthrough in the stalled relations. The climate calamity that has devastated Pakistan has pushed the Biden administration to come to help its former ally. Washington has pledged millions of dollars in aid to the flood victims.

President Biden particularly mentioned devastation in Pakistan due to climate change during his address at the UN General Assembly session. He also called the international community to help Pakistan deal with the enormous humanitarian crisis.

Meanwhile, in a significant move, the Biden administration has eased the restrictions on arms sales to Pakistan. Last month, the US Congress approved a $450 million sale of F16 equipment to Pakistan. Although the proposed sale is meant to support the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States, it will also allow sustainment of Pakistan’s F-16 fleet and its ability to support counterterrorism operations.

Pakistan is still important for the US post-withdrawal security plans in the region. It’s important for the US to have a presence in the region as part of its efforts to counter global terrorist groups making Afghanistan the center of their activities. Counter terrorism cooperation between the two countries remains critical for regional peace and stability. Washington would like Pakistan to continue its counter terrorism cooperation. However, the nature of this cooperation is still under negotiations.

A major concern is that a collapse of state could push Afghanistan further to descend into chaos, fueling a full-scale civil war with neighboring and surrounding countries backing different factions. The continuing instability and conflict in Afghanistan could be disastrous for regional peace. The presence of militant sanctuaries in Afghanistan is a common concern both for the United States and for Pakistan.

Pakistan seeks co-operation beyond counterterrorism and Afghanistan, which of course would remain priorities. For Pakistan, the United States remains an important trading and economic partner. America is Pakistan’s largest export market and a major source of foreign remittances besides being one of the top investors in Pakistan.

But a re-setting of the relationship will certainly not be easy. It will be difficult to maintain even a transactional relationship in the existing environment of distrust. In order to move forward, the two countries should start meaningful dialogue at the senior political level to draw a framework for a new relationship.

- Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson Centre and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with Militant Islam and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan. Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ. His latest book ‘No-Win War’ was published this year. Twitter: @hidhussain

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