Little hope for full Pak-US strategic partnership

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Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal

Relations between Pakistan and the United States have always been complex and fraught with difficulties, but in the last year, there has been a measure of change, with the Trump administration shelving its punitive policies toward Islamabad and kickstarting a higher level of engagement.

The fact is, Pakistan needs America’s economic assistance and diplomatic support at international forums. In turn, the Trump administration realizes the utility Pakistan holds in the pursuit of its Afghanistan policy, as well as in addressing rising political complexities in the Arabian Gulf.

President Trump and Prime Minister Imran Khan’s meeting at a July summit in Washington and then another meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in September have contributed constructively toward shedding mistrust in relations. 

Currently, it seems both sides are considering cooperation beyond military aid. Though Pakistan has ceased to be a frontline state for the US in the region, it has a sound understanding of combating militant organizations, understands Afghanistan’s political crisis and is in a position to advance bilateral trade and investment.

The possible end of the 18-year war in Afghanistan will be advantageous for both Pakistan and the US. And it is encouraging, that instead of dictating and repeating the mantra of ‘do-more,’ the Trump administration has preferred to engage with Pakistan in the Afghanistan settlement, which has boosted bilateral relations.

Islamabad was a strong proponent of direct talks between the US and the Afghan-Taliban movement. It helped in chalking out a withdrawal plan of US troops from Afghanistan and also to prevent its territory from being used as a base for militancy in the future. And despite the plug being abruptly pulled from the talks in September, the recent regional tour of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, which included meetings with top officials in Islamabad, including Prime Minister Imran Khan and Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, have generated optimism for the resumption of US-Taliban peace talks.  

Washington and Islamabad have made tangible initiatives to improve trust in one another. The US vindicated Pakistan’s position on Baloch armed insurgents by declaring the Balochistan Liberation Army a global terrorist group. This was not only a diplomatic success for Islamabad but it also facilitated law enforcement agencies in curbing the group’s attacks while limiting their external support. 

For its part, Islamabad has been coming down hard on those designated by the US as terrorists. This year, Pakistan indicted 13 leaders of the Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD), including its chief Hafiz Saeed in terror financing and money laundering cases. Saeed was a US-designated global terrorist and since 2008, Washington had been pressing Pakistan to crack down on these individuals and to impose United Nations sanctions against them. 

The actions taken by both governments against BLA and JuD have not only improved the mutual trust between Islamabad and Washington but has also proven that Pakistan is sincere about eliminating all militant entities and individuals residing on and operating from its soil.
Additionally, President Trump’s willingness and offer of mediation between the two nuclear-armed neighbors, Pakistan and India, on the Kashmir dispute was well received in Pakistan after Delhi scrapped the region’s special legal status in August.

And even though Prime Minister Narendra Modi rejected the mediation offer, the gesture certainly contributed to Pakistan’s diplomatic efforts to internationalize the Kashmir dispute and to muster worldwide support for the Kashmiris’ right to self-determination. 

But realistically speaking, trends in regional and global geopolitics don’t seem optimistic for the revival of a full-fledged strategic partnership between the US and Pakistan. A blossoming India-US strategic partnership frustrates Pakistan, especially the Trump administration’s endorsement of India’s domineering role in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, and its lobbying for New Delhi’s full membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) while being apathetic toward Pakistan’s demands for a criteria-based approach in NSG membership.

Also, increasing China-US strategic competition and trade tussles have also negatively influenced Pakistan-US engagement. Pakistan’s policy of maintaining a balance in its relations with both the US and China is a cumbersome task for its policy-makers. It cannot secure financial assistance from international monetary institutions, including the IMF, without winning America’s support, and it is equally impossible for it to build its economic infrastructure without the generous support of China. In this context, the only practical approach is that the government of Pakistan provides equal opportunities to Chinese, American, and other interested private investors in its exclusive economic zones. 
In the end, only the sincerest cooperation in combating transnational terrorist organizations and true collaboration in ending the Afghan war while improving bilateral trade and investment will build a better and more durable Pakistan-US relationship.

(Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal is an Islamabad-based analyst and professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University. E-mail: jaspal_99@hotmail.com)