Pakistan and US – A troubled relationship?

By Yasmeen Aftab Ali

Christophe Jaffrelot calls the relationship between US and Pakistan “clientelistic,” one based on instrumental exchange, not ideological affinity. It has been driven by different motives and lack of a similar approach towards achieving peace in Afghanistan. Additionally, the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan is rupturing this relationship between the two. Washington’s strategy has been to conduct its War on Terror on Afghan soil, though it has chosen conflicting policies and supported local partners that defy the final desired outcome. More importantly, USA’s partnership with Pakistan has always remained in the headlines albeit for all the wrong reasons.

Pakistan has gained very little by siding with the US on this war, as the spillover effects of terrorism have seriously damaged the country’s social fabric. Moreover, the growing Indian presence and influence, under the watchful eyes of Washington, in Afghanistan is also becoming a source of discord for Pakistan. Fear of India using Afghan soil to ingress in Pakistan are not founded without reason. The case of Kulbhushan Sudhir Jadhav is one evident example. Jadhav, in his confession video, admitted to have held meetings with Baloch insurgents and collaborated with them to carry out activities “of a criminal nature, leading to the killing or maiming of Pakistani citizens,” (Dawn Updated April 10, 2017)

On top of that, owing to diverging ideological strategies, there has remained an air of mistrust between Washington and Islamabad. Though Pakistan’s policy for Afghanistan has more or less been consistent, the US has, in the past decades, been unable to achieve the goals set out for Afghanistan. The uneven relationship between the US and Pakistan has led to a blame game that serves neither. Trump had made his policy for South Asia clear in his speech of 2017. His speech, in one part hinted at slightly increasing the number of US troops in Afghanistan – a number inconsequential to the strength of combating militants, while in the other part, he told Pakistan to ‘do more’ in restraining Islamist militants. With Pakistan fighting a war against terrorism on her own soil, her ability to ‘restrain’ militants by using ‘soft power’ becomes negligible. Further, the US pressure on Pakistan to take the burden of failure of US boots on ground in Afghanistan is certainly resented.

In the Middle East, the fact that President Trump has refrained from interfering directly in the Syrian conflict may be viewed as toning down the American involvement. Interestingly USA’s strong stance against Iran contradicts the reducing US military presence in the Middle East. Trump is supporting Saudi Arab and Israel with other nations, notably Jordon, Egypt and other Gulf States, to counter Iran. Pakistan’s stance in the Middle East is a walk on the tight rope. It has become increasingly clear to Islamabad that the Islamic Military Alliance is less a set up to fight terrorism and more to counter Iran. A reality that leads to a very delicate position for Pakistan to balance. Pakistan has taken loans and aid from Saudi Arabia, whereas on the other hand, Pakistan does not wish to alienate Iran, who is an important neighbor. Pakistan’s Shia population is the second highest in the world followed by Iran. Being a member of the marked Sunni club does not make it easy for Pakistan and, hence, can be another flashpoint between her and US in times to come.

One member of the US Administration can play a positive role in Washington’s policy towards Pakistan, Lisa Curtis. Curtis is a senior think tank member chosen to advise White House on South Asian affairs. Her portfolio includes Pakistan’s relations with the United States and also the United States interaction with India and its role in Afghanistan. Curtis supports a strong stance against terrorism, maintaining close ties with India and constant US pressure on Pakistan to bring Pakistan’s policies related to Afghanistan on the same page as that of the US. It is here that the glitch lies. The US needs to rise above the clientelistic relationship it has maintained with Pakistan and through engaging with her, make a genuine effort to understand her concerns. Till such a scenario this is achieved, the US may feel more frustrated and Pakistan may feel more insulted.

A report was recently drafted by 12 think tank members, led by Curtis and Mr Hussain Haqqani, former Ambassador of Pakistan, and published jointly by Hudson and the Heritage Foundation. US Schol­ars from Brookings Institute and Georgetown University were also taken on board. The report recommended cutting off military aid to Pakistan, revoking Pakistan’s status as non-NATO ally and declare her as a state sponsoring terrorism if Islamabad failed to change her policies to align them with those of the US. To demand this from any nation is a tall order. The US will not do what it demands of Pakistan if positions were reversed. To achieve desired goals, interests and concerns of all stake holders must be weighed and an inclusive strategy developed. Unilateral decisions seldom work.

It is also important to mention Rex Tillerson, who was removed as the Secretary of State after just over a year of being in the office. Tillerson’s approach towards Pakistan had also been based on the ‘do more’ mantra. In an address in August 2017, he spoke very strongly about the eroding trust between Washington and Islamabad. He spoke about terrorist organizations being allowed safe havens in Pakistan and at the same time expressing a conflicting desire to bring Taliban to the negotiation table. He talked about ‘conditioning the support of US’ once Pakistan changes her policy of terrorism.

Though Pakistan was one of the countries that recognized the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, a lot has changed since then. Pakistan’s strategy over time for Afghanistan may at some tangents have been flawed, so has been that of the US.

Then there is India. Pakistan’s arch rival. The US moving closer to India can only raise antennas in Islamabad, deterring any cooperation desired. Any unilateral decision leading to bullying Pakistan will be counterproductive. With China’s economic interests deeply entwined with Pakistan in the CPEC, the only outcome of arm twisting tactics will be to push Pakistan even closer to China. At the end of the day, any resolving of the issues that mar the relationship between US and Pakistan must be resolved through dialogue and without laying out conditions. According to Brookings, “The relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan could worsen in the short term if the Trump administration follows the decision to cut off aid with further actions, such as rescinding Pakistan’s major non-NATO ally status, declaring Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism, or diplomatically isolating Pakistan.” (Friday, January 12, 2018)

Thus, diplomacy is an art and confrontation is not diplomacy.

The writer is a lawyer, academic and political analyst. She has authored a book titled ‘A Comparative Analysis of Media & Media Laws in Pakistan.’ She can be contacted at: and tweets at @yasmeen_9

1 comment

  1. We chased the Red Bear out of the honeycomb and let in the White Bear to lick his paw. Now that we want this one out, she aren’t leaving and expecting twins this fall.

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