By Talat Masood
Washington has been giving clear signals to Pakistan that it has serious reservations about Pakistan’s policies especially as related to Afghanistan. Biden refuses to engage with Prime Minister Imran Khan as a deliberate snub and Secretary of State Blinken’s recent statement that the US is reassessing its policies toward Pakistan clearly reinforces the unfortunate trend.
US ire is not something new for Pakistan, which has gone through this cycle of an ally and adversary many times in its 74-year history. But these remarks coming in the backdrop of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and increasing strategic competition and rivalry between China and US give it a new dimension.
Pakistan’s close relations with China have its rewards as well as its downside as it invites the hostility of the US and certain Western countries. Although Pakistan has repeatedly stated that its strategic partnership with China does not prevent it from maintaining good relations with the US.
Washington does not accept this line of thinking and considers the closeness of Pakistan as strengthening China. But every country has to promote its security and national interests and cannot be dictated by others.
Historically, Pakistan’s relations with the US have been a roller coaster affair. In the late 50’s and until the 1965 war with India, Pakistan was among Washington’s close allies. It was a member of the several US-led security alliances- CENTO, SEATO and Baghdad Pact which were essentially meant to counter the expansionist policies of erstwhile Soviet Union.
The US suspension of military aid after 1965 and its growing closeness to India led Pakistan to lean on China for economic and military assistance. China, while viewing India as a strategic rival at the regional level, found in Pakistan a reliable ally.
Pakistan’s relations with the US have also centered around issues related to Afghanistan’s security. Pakistan played a vital role in the 1980’s by supporting the Afghan Mujahideen in their fight against the Soviet occupation. Equally critical, was Pakistan’s alliance with the US after 9/11 during the war on terror. But US-Pakistan interests have never found a basis for enduring and long-term relationships. As soon as US objectives were achieved, it abandoned and even sanctioned Pakistan by applying its laws for Pakistan’s nuclear build-up.
There were and still are certain policies Pakistan pursues that apparently do not converge with US interests. The support of Kashmiri fighters by Pakistan, even if it be justified, is opposed by the US and the West.
Meanwhile, India’s human rights violations and unilateral actions to absorb Kashmir within the Indian Union in contravention of UNSC resolutions are deliberately ignored.
US leaders blame Pakistan for providing support to the Afghan Taliban and facilitating their getting back into power. Pakistan believes this belies facts and is a reflection of Washington’s frustration.
America’s frequent insinuation that Pakistan is playing a double game has no concrete basis and is an unfair allegation. True, some prominent Taliban leader’s families were staying in the tribal regions. But with borders contiguous and three million Afghan refugees residing close to the border, which until recently was not even fenced, strict movement control was not feasible.
Another reality that could not be overlooked was that Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani’s governments were very hostile toward Pakistan and close to India. Whereas the Pakistan civil and military leadership found the Taliban more understanding, refusing to be dragged into regional power plays.
In recent years, Pakistan’s relations with Russia have improved considerably.
The US departure from Afghanistan and its clear disinterest in the region is facilitating China, Russia and other regional powers to benefit from it. The recent visit of Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov to Pakistan, and the possibilities of Russian investment in the energy sector, steel mill and defense equipment, will give a boost to this growing relationship. Pakistan is improving relations with Central Asian states and focusing more on regional connectivity and expanding economic and trade ties with them.
In recent months, US-China rivalry is on the rise. It is an inevitable consequence of the reality that Washington’s policies aim at denying China’s aspirations to be a global player. President Biden has reiterated his resolve to ensure that US remains the lone superpower. Perhaps he thinks that involvement in external wars such as Afghanistan distracted attention from China and gave it free hand to build its economic power and extend its global influence.
In this power rivalry, Japan, India and Australia are partners of the US. The European Union too supports checkmating China’s rise. But all these countries that view China’s rise with apprehension have close economic and trade interests that they may not be able to reduce or cut off, without serious consequences to their economies.
For Pakistan, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has contributed to laying a solid energy and road infrastructure that will greatly contribute to expanding the industrial and agricultural base of the country. CPEC also aims at strengthening Pakistan’s human resource. With clear benefits accruing from collaboration with China in the economic, political, defense and strategic areas, Pakistan is not going to change course. In all likelihood, as pressure from the US mounts and Indian hostility continues, Pakistan will tend to lean more on China.
The unceremonious withdrawal of US from Afghanistan, Washington’s close ties with Delhi and growing strategic competition and rivalry between China and US tend to cast a shadow on US-Pakistan relations. However, a more balanced approach by US toward Pakistan and the latter catering to US security concerns and staying away from the superpower rivalry could help improve relations.
(Talat Masood is a retired Lieutenant General from Pakistan Army and an eminent scholar on national security and political issues. E-mail: email@example.com)