A New Day for U.S.-Pakistan Relations?

The United States and Pakistan have had a fraught relationship since the partition of India in 1947. While the relationship had a very promising start, with both nations fighting against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, Islamabad’s decision to develop a nuclear weapon in the 1990s served to plunge the U.S.-Pakistan relationship down the drain, as Washington cut off military and economic aid it had previously provided for numerous years. After more than a decade under board as result of U.S. sanctions for its nuclear proliferation activities, and later for a military coup, the 9/11 terrorist attacks transformed the relationship overnight and Pakistan became a key ally in the U.S. led efforts to combat Islamist militancy and extremism throughout the world. 

For the years that followed the September 11th attacks, Pakistan was one of the leading recipients of U.S. assistance. Since 2002, Pakistan has received more than $33 billion in U.S. assistance, including more than $14 billion in CSF (Coalition Support Funds) - a DOD program aimed at reimbursing allies that have incurred costs in supporting counter-insurgency operations. While, Islamabad and Washington appeared to be finally cooperating and working towards a mutual objective, the May 2011 revelation that Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden had enjoyed years-long and relatively comfortable refuge inside Pakistan led to intensive U.S. government scrutiny of the bilateral relationship. The discovery of Bin Laden’s whereabouts served to create more distrust between both countries, yet the U.S. continued to provide considerable aid (an average of $1.1 billion from 2011 to 2016) to Pakistan throughout the remainder of President Obama’s second term in office. 

Donald Trump’s election as the 45th President of the United States in 2016 served to shift American interests at home and abroad. While campaigning for the highest office in the land, Donald Trump constantly scrutinized international organizations and said he would reconsider the amount of foreign aid the U.S. handed out. Such statements raised several eyebrows in Islamabad, and in his first tweet of 2018, President Trump lashed out against Pakistan writing that “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years.” He went on to accuse Pakistan of “deception, lies and of providing safe haven to terrorists.” Just a few days after President Trump’s tweet, the U.S. government declared that it would break off all aid to Pakistan, including military assistance until the Pakistani military decides to take action against the ‘militant’ Haqqani network and the Taliban. Later that year, Washington forwarded a motion to place Pakistan on a global terrorism financing watch-list. President Trump words and the actions that followed such statements served to thrust relations between the U.S. and Pakistan to an all-time low. 

As one can understand by closely reading the opening paragraphs of this piece, these American threats are nothing new, and as John Sipher wrote in an article for “Just Security”, “The Trump Administration’s efforts to change Pakistan’s behavior are likely to fail.” Nevertheless, the recent disagreements between both nations represent a deeper rift - a divide that has been present since the early days of Pakistan as a nation state, but that has only widened under the Trump administration. Throughout history, repeated American threats have pushed Pakistan to look to China and Iran for assistance. 

While the U.S. and Pakistan have had a historically complicated relationship, the national security interests of both nations have usually converged. However, changing geopolitical scenarios have caused such mutual interests to devolve. Throughout the last few years, the U.S. has forged closer ties with India, while continuously criticizing Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan. Islamabad views a stronger relationship between Washington and New Delhi with considerable distrust as Pakistani officials believe India’s national security interests stand at stark opposition to their own. 

Moreover, China’s evolving relationship with Pakistan has served to further weaken the ties between Washington and Islamabad. In the form of foreign direct investment (FDI) through President Xi’s audacious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Chinese government and companies have poured significant amounts of capital into Pakistan. Through the Chinese Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), China has invested over $60 billion in the development of Pakistan’s infrastructure. This initiative - which seeks to link China’s western and less-developed Xinjiang region with Gwadar in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. - will lead to unprecedented levels of commercialization within Pakistan, and has served to strengthen the ties between both countries. According to reports released by Pakistan’s state bank, almost 60% of the FDI flows into the country come from China, and many experts believe the number will continue to grow in the coming years. As Harrison Akins, a researcher at the Howard Baker Center who focuses on Pakistan and China, told Newsweek, “Chinese investment in Pakistan is expected to reach over $46 billion by 2030 with the creation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.” 

Beijing’s economic, military, and diplomatic support served as an invaluable alternative to American aid, and has helped to create a renewed sense of security within Pakistan even as the U.S. has grown closer to India. From extensive capital flows to diplomatic support in various issues, China is Pakistan’s to-go country. However, a partnership with Beijing has numerous underlying costs that could prove to be  disastrous to the Pakistani economy and society in the long term. President Xi’s notorious “debt-trap diplomacy” will make Islamabad increasingly dependent on Beijing’s financial contributions and deepen the gap with Washington.

President Trump has repeatedly conveyed that he will do anything to circumvent Chinese global ambitions and prevent their dystopian world order to replace the current rules-based international status quo. Washington understands India’s importance in any security mechanism designed to contain Beijing, thus the notion of having a Chinese satellite state in India’s border would certainly undermine the efforts to prevent the “Middle Kingdom” from expanding their sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean Region.  Also, the Trump administration appears to have recognized that U.S.-Pakistan ties are needed to promote peace in Afghanistan. President Trump ran for office on an “America First” platform that criticized U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts, and promised to get the U.S. out of all “stupid wars.” In order to achieve a lasting peace with the Taliban and end the war in Afghanistan, Washington must have a working military and diplomatic relationship with Islamabad. As a result, President Trump has started to show signs of a possible re-approximation with Pakistan. In February, the U.S. President said he had developed a “much better” relationship with Pakistan, and earlier this month PM Imran Khan accepted President Trump’s invitation to visit Washington in the end of July with the objective of  “refreshing the bilateral relationship.” 

After decades of estrangement coupled with a few instances of engagement, U.S.-Pakistan relations might be finally on the verge of a new day. While many analysts are not expecting anything monumental to emerge from the first Trump-Khan meeting, it could certainly go a long way in laying the groundwork for improved bilateral relations. Washington is in a very complicated place, as further criticism towards Pakistan is unlikely to work and would drive Islamabad closer to Iran and China. The road to improved relations will be long, and requires careful diplomacy and investment in Pakistan to offset China’s economic and military ever-growing influence. 

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