US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to Pakistan, which was followed by a longer and more productive visit to India, has served to highlight once again the growing Pakistan-US strategic divergence in a marked contrast with the rapidly developing Indo-US strategic partnership. In Islamabad, the two sides focused on narrowing down their differences on the issues of terrorism and the restoration of durable peace and stability in Afghanistan. Just a few days before Mike Pompeo’s arrival in Islamabad, the US had decided not to reimburse to Pakistan $300 million of Coalition Support Fund (CSF) to convey its displeasure over Pakistan’s alleged inability to take “decisive actions in support of the US South Asia Strategy”, that is, decisive actions against terrorists allegedly operating from the Pakistan territory. This was over and above the $500 million of CSF that had been withheld by the US earlier this year. The two countries also continue to have different perspectives and views on ways and means of restoring durable peace and stability in Afghanistan. By way of contrast, the joint statement issued on 6 September after the launch of the US-India Ministerial 2+2 Dialogue in New Delhi, in which Secretary of State Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mattis represented the US side, recognised that the two countries were strategic partners and reaffirmed their resolve to strengthen their strategic, diplomatic and defence cooperation.
Despite the best face that Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi tried to put on Secretary of State Pompeo’s visit and the current state of Pakistan-US relationship during press briefings, it should be obvious to any keen observer that the relationship continues to be in deep trouble. An early indication of this unhappy state of affairs was given by the Trump administration in August last year in its Afghanistan/South Asia strategy, which warned Pakistan that its partnership with the US could not survive its “harboring of militants and terrorists who target US service members and officials.” It implied that if the US demands were not met, Pakistan may be subjected to military and economic assistance sanctions. At the same time, the strategy appreciated India’s “important contributions to stability in Afghanistan.” Later, Mike Pompeo as Director CIA issued a warning to Pakistan in December last year that if it did not eliminate the alleged terrorist safe havens inside its territory, the US would do “everything we can” to destroy them.
President Trump’s national security strategy made public in December 2017 again stressed that Washington would press Pakistan to intensify its counter-terrorism efforts and “take decisive action against militant and terrorist groups operating from its soil.” It was, therefore, expected that Pakistan would remain under the US pressure for its alleged support to the Afghan Taliban and other militant groups. More or less, the same message was conveyed by Pompeo to PM Imran Khan in his congratulatory telephone call to him on his election as the Prime Minister. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that the joint Indo-US statement issued on 6 September after Secretary of State Pompeo’s talks in New Delhi issued a stern warning to Pakistan: “The Ministers denounced any use of terrorist proxies in the region, and in this context, they called on Pakistan to ensure that the territory under its control is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries. On the eve of the 10-year anniversary of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, they called on Pakistan to bring to justice expeditiously the perpetrators of the Mumbai, Pathankot, Uri, and other cross-border terrorist attacks. The Ministers welcomed the launch of a bilateral dialogue on designation of terrorists in 2017, which is strengthening cooperation and action against terrorist groups, including Al-Qa’ida, ISIS, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, the Haqani Network, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, D-company, and their affiliates.” As was to be expected, there was no mention of Kulbhushan Jadav and his terrorist activities in Pakistan as a RAW agent.
It was nice to hear FM Qureshi tell media representatives after his talks with Secretary Pompeo that the latter had not demanded anything specific from Islamabad. In the light of later developments, it seems that Pompeo had kept those demands in reserve for inclusion in the Indo-US joint statement to be issued from New Delhi just a day later! Secretary Pompeo told journalists even at the airport before his departure for New Delhi, “We made clear to them that—and they agreed—it’s time for us to begin to deliver on our joint commitments, right.” He added that there was “broad agreement” about the need for “on the ground” actions to “deliver outcomes so that we can begin to build confidence and trust between the two countries.” This was simply a polite way of reiterating the known US demands on the issue of terrorism. It was in this context that Secretary Pompeo expressed the hope for resetting the relationship between Pakistan and the US.
The need for resetting Pakistan-US relations on a sustainable and mutually beneficial basis is self-evident. In preserving this friendly relationship, both sides must try to understand each other’s point of view in order to identify common ground for cooperation. The relationship, to be sustainable, must be based on mutual respect and mutual accommodation. It should not be a one-way traffic in which one side simply makes demands upon the other side for compliance. While one would wish FM Qureshi all the success as he prepares for his forthcoming visit to Washington, it is necessary to emphasise that any effort to reset our friendly relations with the US must be based on realistic assumptions and a careful analysis of strategic realities and emerging trends, and not on wishful thinking or the desire to play to the gallery.
What are the strategic realities and emerging trends that impact on Pakistan-US relations? The overarching global strategic reality is the growing US-China rivalry and the consequent rapidly developing Indo-US strategic partnership to counter the expansion of China’s power and influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. On the other hand, the grave threat posed by India to our security interests and economic well-being demands the steady development of our strategic partnership and cooperation with China in various fields. This is the fundamental cause for the growing Pakistan-US strategic divergence. On the other hand, the convergence of the strategic interests of China and Pakistan provides a solid foundation and the main reason for the steady growth of friendship and cooperation between the two countries in the form of CPEC and other projects.
This does not mean, however, that we should stop exploring the possibilities of improving relations with the US wherever possible. The reported US willingness to work for a political settlement, instead of seeking a military victory, in Afghanistan has brightened the prospects of cooperation between Islamabad and Washington for the restoration of durable peace in that country. On the issue of terrorism, we need to remove ambiguities about our operational policies. Islamabad and Washington can also engage each other for promoting mutual cooperation in economic, commercial and technical fields. However, our efforts to reset our relations with the US must be informed by the emerging strategic realities and mindful of the consequent limitations of the Pakistan-US friendship in the foreseeable future.
The days of the Cold War era, when the US needed Pakistan as an ally, are over. In the anarchic and disorderly world of the 21st century, we must learn to stand on our own feet by adopting policies of austerity and self-reliance if we wish to manage our external relations, including those with the US, in the nation’s best interests.
The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.