In contrast with the situation during most of the Cold War when Pakistan and the US, despite some ups and downs, were closely allied, their relationship now is at a crossroads. Geopolitical compulsions are steadily pushing the two countries farther apart from each other. China’s phenomenal rise and the growing Sino-US rivalry, which would be the defining feature of the 21st century, is drawing the US and India into an increasingly close strategic embrace while gradually weakening the strategic links between Islamabad and Washington. This inexorable process has brought Pakistan-US relationship to a critical point where both sides need to have a dispassionate assessment of its future prospects with a view to restructuring it on realistic assumptions. Only such an exercise would enable them to have a mutually beneficial relationship and durable friendship, which, however, would be much more limited in scope than the strategic partnership of the Cold War era.
American leadership has left no doubt in anybody’s mind that in South Asia it attaches the highest importance to its rapidly growing strategic partnership with India. This partnership, which is aimed at containing the expansion of China’s power and influence in South Asia, is part of the wall of alliances that the US erecting around China. Its declaration of 2005 to make India a major world power of the 21st century was motivated by the US policy of containment of China. Obviously it is Washington’s expectation that an economically and militarily powerful India would act as a natural barrier in the way of the expansion of Chinese influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. This would especially be the case in South Asia where India entertains hegemonic designs. The joint statement issued on 26 June, 2017 after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with President Trump in the White House expressed their resolve to “expand and deepen” their strategic partnership and advance common objectives.
On the other hand, Pakistan, which considers India as the source of an enduring and serious threat to its security, views China as a natural strategic partner in countering India’s hegemonic designs. CPEC is a vivid example of the growing strategic partnership between Pakistan and China. Thus, the evolution of the global and regional security environment is pushing India and the US as well as Pakistan and China closer to each other while the US and Pakistan are slowly drifting apart. It is unlikely that these trends in the foreseeable future would undergo any fundamental change. This strategic divergence between Pakistan and the US has had and would continue to have its inevitable impact on prospects of cooperation in all other areas.
Over and above the underlying strategic divergence, policy differences between Pakistan and the US on Afghanistan have created further obstacles in the development of friendly relations and cooperation between them. The US continues to allege that Pakistan is not doing enough to deny sanctuaries to the Afghan Taliban and members of the Haqqani network who are allegedly involved in terrorist activities in Afghanistan. Pakistan denies this allegation while drawing attention to the enormous sacrifices in blood and treasure that it has rendered in the operations against the Taliban and the Haqqani network. It claims that now these elements have relocated to those areas in Afghanistan which are not under the control of the Kabul government.
There is, however, a huge trust deficit between Washington and Islamabad on this issue. The US remains unconvinced of Pakistan’s sincerity in combating the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network. It, therefore, continues to exert pressure on Pakistan to do more. The new Afghanistan policy announced by President Trump in August this year warned Pakistan that its partnership with the US could not survive its “harbouring of militants and terrorists who target US service members and officials”. It also reiterated the US determination to develop its strategic partnership with India. While appreciating India’s “important contributions to stability in Afghanistan”, the new policy called upon New Delhi to help the US “more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development”. Director CIA Mike Pompeo separately warned Pakistan in early December that if it did not eliminate the alleged safe havens inside its territory, the United States would do “everything we can” to destroy them.
The US message of “do more” was again conveyed to Pakistan’s civil and military leadership by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defence Secretary James Mattis in their recent visits to Pakistan. During the visit of Defence Secretary Mattis on 4 December, Pakistan rejected the US assessment that it had not “seen any practical change” in the Pakistan’s handling of the militants operating in Afghanistan from its soil and assured the US of its commitment to deny safe havens to them. At the same time, it expressed its willingness to look into and check the possibility of miscreants exploiting Pakistan’s hospitality to the Afghan refugees to the detriment of the Afghanistan side. It also drew the attention of the US Defence Secretary to the existence of terrorist safe havens across the border in Afghanistan for terrorist activities in Pakistan. It appears that despite the commitment expressed by the two sides to find common ground for the restoration of durable peace and stability in Afghanistan, a great deal of more work on both sides remains to be done.
On the issue of terrorism in general again, there appear to be serious differences between the US and Pakistan. These differences were highlighted by the strong US reaction to the orders of a Pakistani court to release Hafiz Saeed, the chief of Jamat-ud-Dawa, who has a $10 million US bounty on his head. In a strong statement issued by the White House on 25 November, the US pointed out that Saeed’s release “sends a deeply troubling message about Pakistan’s commitment to combating international terrorism” and warned that “if Pakistan does not take action to lawfully detain Saeed and charge him for his crimes, its inaction will have repercussions for bilateral relations and for Pakistan’s global reputation”. Despite complaints by Islamabad about the strong language used by the US in criticising Pakistan, there does not appear to be much softening of the US attitude on issues relating to international terrorism. Apparently, Washington continues to believe that while Islamabad has indeed taken forceful action against terrorists operating within Pakistan, it has not taken strong enough action against terrorist elements on its territory to prevent them from undertaking acts of terrorism against neighbouring countries, that is, Afghanistan and India.
It is quite clear that there is need for mutual understanding and urgent steps to salvage Pakistan-US friendship. Both sides must try to understand each other’s concerns on regional and global issues, particularly Afghanistan and international terrorism, with a view to finding common ground and easing tensions in bilateral relations. While Pakistan must redouble its efforts to deny sanctuaries to remnants of Afghan militants on its soil, the Kabul government should be encouraged by the US to engage the Afghan Taliban in an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned dialogue for national reconciliation and durable peace in Afghanistan. The commencement of such a dialogue may be facilitated if it is combined with the announcement of a temporary cease-fire between the Kabul government and the Afghan Taliban. Kabul authorities should also take steps to prevent militants in Afghanistan from carrying out terrorist activities in Pakistan. Separately, both New Delhi, which has been involved in fomenting terrorist activities in Pakistan, and Islamabad should take concrete steps, wherever needed, for demonstrating unequivocally their resolve to combat terrorism in any form or manifestation.