Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to Islamabad for attending the second edition of the revitalized Pak-US Strategic Dialogue provides a useful opportunity to evaluate the potential and the future prospects of Pakistan-US friendship against the background of the evolving regional and global scenarios. An accurate understanding of the convergence and the divergence of the interests of the two countries in a dynamic setting is an essential prerequisite for judging the long-term worth of this vital relationship. An analysis on these lines reveals that whereas Pakistan’s friendship with the US must remain an enduring factor in Pakistan’s foreign policy for the foreseeable future, it would be a mistake to attach exaggerated expectations to it because of the likely evolution of the regional and global scenarios.

There is convergence of the strategic interests of the two countries in four broad areas. The first is the issue of terrorism. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Washington has assigned top priority to countering terrorism for ensuring the security of both the US and its allies and friends. Pakistan itself has also been the victim of terrorism. Its people and military personnel have rendered enormous sacrifices in the fight against terrorism. The commencement of the Zarb-e-Azb military operation against the terrorists in North Waziristan including the Haqqani network and the adoption of the national plan of action for countering terrorism after the attack on the army public school in Peshawar on 16th December last year, have helped in removing some of the doubts in the minds of the Americans about Pakistan’s seriousness in combating terrorism. It is worth noting, however, that Kerry, while announcing the assistance of $250 million for the IDPs from North Waziristan in Islamabad also called for action against LeT, perhaps at the request of India from where he had come to Islamabad. So on the issue of terrorism, there is now better understanding between Pakistan and the US than was the case in the past. But there are still some reservations and doubts on the American side mainly because of India-related jihadi organizations.

The restoration of durable peace and stability in Afghanistan is another area where the two countries can cooperate with each other to their mutual advantage. Washington, which has invested heavily in Afghanistan in the form of loss of lives of thousands of its soldiers and expenditure exceeding $1 trillion in the longest war in US history, has welcomed the trend towards the improvement of Pakistan-Afghanistan relations following new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Islamabad in November last year. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan have given assurances that they would not allow their territory to be used for terrorist activities in the other country. Pakistan also agreed to facilitate the commencement of dialogue between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban for national reconciliation and a political settlement in Afghanistan during President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Pakistan. Since the US itself favours such a dialogue, it is another area in which Islamabad and Washington can cooperate for the achievement of their shared goal of durable peace and stability in Afghanistan.

Thirdly, Washington has an enduring interest in the political stability and economic viability of Pakistan which is a de facto nuclear power and enjoys a strategic location at the crossroads of South Asia, West Asia and Central Asia. There is also a common US-Pakistan interest in nuclear non-proliferation to which Washington attaches the highest importance. As for Pakistan, the importance of its friendly relations with the US, the most powerful military and economic power of the world, cannot be exaggerated. Pakistan has been the recipient of US economic and military assistance since the 1950’s barring a few years when bilateral relations suffered because of policy differences between the two countries. The US is an important market for Pakistan’s exports. Pakistan can benefit from the scientific and technological advancement in the US which has also welcomed, over the years, a large number of immigrants from Pakistan. Further, Pakistan’s friendship with the US is critically important for us because of the enormous influence that Washington enjoys in capitals around the world and in international security and financial institutions.

Finally, the US, like Pakistan has an abiding interest in peace and stability in South Asia where two de facto nuclear powers in the shape of India and Pakistan are often in a state of confrontation. The avoidance of armed conflict between Pakistan and India is obviously a strategic imperative for the two countries, particularly because of their de facto nuclear status and the need for them to use their resources for eradicating widespread poverty rather than in fighting each other. The US would like Pakistan and India to remain engaged with each other and resolve their differences and disputes through dialogue. Kerry’s disclosure to the media in Islamabad that during his visit to India he had encouraged the Indian government to resume dialogue with Pakistan did not, therefore, come as a total surprise.

However, there are other areas in which the interests of the US and Pakistan diverge. The most important out of them is the US policy of containment of China. Pakistan neither has the capability nor the willingness to be a party to this policy. India, on the other hand, has the potential to emerge as China’s rival on the Asian continent and block the expansion of China’s power and influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean regions. India’s strategic goals include hegemonic designs in South Asia and a pre-eminent position in the Indian Ocean. The US has, therefore, taken a policy decision to help India emerge as a major world power of the 21st century. In pursuance of this decision, it has de-hyphenated its relations with India from those with Pakistan. Accordingly it has placed its relationship with India on a much higher plane as compared with its relationship with Pakistan. President Obama’s forthcoming visit to India is a reflection of this reality. It is also engaged in initiatives which would support India’s hegemonic ambitions in South Asia. Considering India’s past record in dismembering Pakistan in 1971 and the enduring threat that it poses to the latter’s security, Islamabad cannot but view these developments with serious concern.

Historically speaking, Pakistan’s brotherly relationship with Iran has been a source of great strength. It is likely to remain so in the long run despite the coolness in this relationship caused by the sectarian factor and the policy differences between the two countries relating to Afghanistan in 1990’s. Pakistan-Iran friendship has huge potential for mutually beneficial cooperation in economic and commercial fields both bilaterally and within the framework of the Economic Cooperation Organization. The Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project, which would be of enormous benefit to Pakistan in meeting its rapidly growing gas requirements, has failed to take off because of the US opposition flowing from its acrimonious relationship with Iran. In this case, the divergence of the interests of Pakistan and the US has worked to the former’s disadvantage. The US pro-Israel policy is another limiting factor in Pakistan-US relations.

The test of Pakistan’s foreign policy lies in recognizing both the potential and the limits of Pakistan-US relations. A pro-active foreign policy should aim at maximizing the areas of convergence of the national interests of the two countries while taking steps to minimize the negative fallout of their divergence.