Shahid M Amin
A positive impact on US-Pakistan relations has been made by Pakistan’s role in securing the safe release of an American national, her Canadian husband and three children. They were kidnapped in Afghanistan by Haqqani network in 2012. Acting on intelligence provided by US authorities, Pakistani security forces traced the vehicle carrying the hostages and, after a shootout with the terrorists, secured their release. US intelligence had been tracking the family’s location and had alerted Pakistani authorities after the family was moved into Pakistan’s Kurram Valley.
President Trump welcomed this development on October 13, 2017, saying “America is starting to have a real relationship with Pakistan.” He thanked Pakistani leaders for “what they have been doing.” Earlier, he had said that release of these captives was a “positive moment” for US relations with Pakistan. He praised Pakistan for its willingness to “do more to provide security in the region”. In a tweet, Trump said: “Starting to develop a much better relationship with Pakistan and its leaders. I want to thank them for their cooperation on many fronts.” This indicated that release of the American couple was not the only reason for Trump’s appreciation. Vice President Pence also praised Pakistan’s help in the release of American citizens, which he listed among “key achievements” of Trump administration.
Actually, signs of improvement in US attitude towards Pakistan were visible since Prime Minister Abbasi met Pence in New York on sidelines of UNGA session in September. Subsequent discussions of Foreign Minister Khwaja Asif in Washington and by a visiting US delegation in Islamabad were described as “constructive” by Pakistan Foreign Office. US Secretaries of State and Defence will soon visit Islamabad. These developments have already caused consternation in India where Foreign Ministry sources warned the US not to be taken in by Pakistan’s “small steps to deflect US pressure.”
Trump’s policy statement in August 2017 had come as a rude shock to Pakistan. It focused only on terrorists using alleged sanctuaries in Pakistan for attacking US/NATO forces. His statement ignored Pakistan’s vital help to USA in the war against terror and its sacrifices that resulted in huge physical and financial losses. Pakistan was indignant over US praise for India’s role in Afghanistan which it wanted further expanded. Pakistan warned that it might have to reconsider its entire relationship with USA, including closure of transit route through Pakistan needed by US/NATO troops in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s angry reaction clearly worried many circles in Washington. An effort has since been made to mend relations with Pakistan. In Pakistan as well, a softening of stance towards USA is apparent.
National interests motivate formulation of foreign policy. Since time does not stand still, modifications are made in foreign policy from time to time. Let us look at the current US motivations influencing its policy towards Pakistan. Despite its longest military campaign in history, the US remains bogged down in Afghanistan. Hopes for military victory have been abandoned and most US troops have already been withdrawn. Trump agreed recently to send a few more troops to Afghanistan. But if the US could not prevail when it had 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, it is unlikely that 13,000 troops, who are mainly there as trainers, would be able to do so. But they do help the Kabul regime to survive. A total US pullout would lead to the regime’s ouster and a second spell of Taliban rule. That would be humiliating for USA and for Trump personally who is so obsessed with the idea of American supremacy.
Under these circumstances, the US needs Pakistan’s support for a graceful exit from Afghanistan. The logistic route through Pakistan remains a vital US requirement. Pakistan’s support is needed for a negotiated political settlement in Afghanistan. Trump is convinced that terrorists are using sanctuaries in Pakistan and he wants an end to such support. It is in US interest that Pakistan should continue its military campaign to eradicate terrorism. The West perceives Islamist extremism and terrorism as the main security threat and believes that Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal belt have been a breeding ground for such terrorists.
The situation in Afghanistan is, however, only one dimension of US relationship with Islamabad. The US simply cannot ignore Pakistan due to several reasons. It is a nuclear power with missile capability and ranks high as a military power. Pakistan has a key geostrategic location. Its close ties with China as also with Russia tilt the global balance of power against USA. Moreover, the US has made a heavy investment in Pakistan since 1948 (around $75 billion in aid) and would not wish to lose it all.
For Pakistan, security and economic welfare are the top national interests. India continues to pose an existential threat to Pakistan. India has exploited the terrorism card to stigmatize Pakistan, making it relatively isolated in the region. Afghanistan accuses Pakistan of support for Afghan terrorists and has, therefore, drawn closer to India. Other neighbours like Iran are also worried. In case the US, the world’s sole Super Power, is also estranged and makes a common front with India, it will hurt Pakistan’s national interests —both security and economic welfare. Pakistan is not at present on a strong wicket. The economic indicators are alarming. Trade deficit is increasing and foreign exchange reserves are falling. Political instability is another big worry. Pakistan needs financial support from international financial institutions where US has influence. The main US grievance is regarding sanctuaries in Pakistan for terrorists. Pakistan denies their presence. Transparency can help resolve this dispute. Some kind of modus vivendi with USA is clearly in Pakistan’s national interest.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.
Shahid M Amin