Pakistan-US Ties: The Complexities and Challenges

Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif while addressing a reception at the US Embassy, Islamabad, on Sept. 29, 2022, stated that Pakistan’s ties with the US needed to be looked at independently.

The Pakistan PM while acknowledging the assistance provided to Pakistan by the US also alluded to some of the setbacks to bilateral relations between both countries. Said Sharif: “We know the reasons but this is not the right time to recall them. Of course, there is a file on your part and a file on our part but if we have to move forward, we must then find ways and means to warm up our relations to levels we have seen in the past.”

Sharif has spoken about the de-hyphenation of the relationship days after the meeting between Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington on Sept. 26, 2022. During the meeting, while bilateral issues were discussed, the US Secretary of State said that re-negotiation of debts with China was also discussed. After the meeting between the two, the US Secretary of State remarked: “…I also urged our colleagues to engage China on some of the important issues of debt relief and restructure so that Pakistan can more quickly recover from the floods.”

China reacted strongly to this statement, saying that it had provided assistance to Pakistan and would continue to do so. The Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Wang Wenbin during a media briefing said that Blinken’s remarks were an unwarranted criticism of the Pakistan-China relationship and the US instead of pointing fingers at Beijing should help Pakistan in this hour of crisis. 

It would be pertinent to point out that during his meeting with Bilawal Bhutto, Blinken also discussed India-Pakistan relations, as well as the Afghanistan issue. US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price while commenting on the agenda of the meeting between Blinken and Bhutto said: “The Secretary and the Foreign Minister also discussed partnering on food security, economic prosperity, regional stability, and Afghanistan.”

US-Pakistan ties in recent years 

While in the past, the US and Pakistan have had a strong security relationship, the changing geopolitical landscape in South Asia and Islamabad’s growing proximity with China especially after the commencement of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project have resulted in a downward slide in bilateral relations. In 2018, Former US President Donald Trump suspended military aid saying that Islamabad had taken no action against terror groups, but in fact provided them a ‘safe haven.’ The former US President also said that Pakistan had only given the US ‘lies and deceit‘ in lieu of the military aid it had received. There was a temporary improvement in bilateral relations between Washington and Islamabad, after the Trump administration began talks with the Taliban to pave the way for a smooth transition after withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. In January 2020, Trump pointed to Islamabad’s important role in Washington’s talks with the Taliban. The former US President did not really engage on any other issue with Pakistan, and categorically stated that Afghanistan was the most important issue. An agreement between the US and Afghanistan titled the ‘Joint Declaration between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan’ was signed in February 2020. 

The exit of Donald Trump, did not result in any tangible improvement in Washington-Islamabad ties. US President Joe Biden had not called Former PM Imran Khan, even once, much to the latter’s chagrin (though the Biden administration did try to engage with Pakistan). The exit of US forces from Afghanistan as well as the Taliban takeover took place in the second year of Biden’s Presidency — he faced scathing criticism for misreading the ramifications of the US withdrawal. The US President has had to contend with numerous other foreign policy challenges with the most recent being the Ukraine-Russia war which is important not just from a geopolitical perspective, but has shaken the global economy – especially oil markets. 

The Biden administration did not pay much attention to Pakistan, except for routine engagement, though senior officials in Imran Khan’s government called for the need to improve economic relations and the need for a holistic relationship – not dictated merely by security issues. Khan’s presence in Russia when the war between Ukraine and Russia had begun only soured ties between Islamabad and Washington further, and while there were a number of factors responsible for Khan’s ouster from Prime Ministership, the former Pakistan PM pointed to a US hand, saying that Washington was not happy with Khan’s independent stance on the Russia- Ukraine war (Khan’s views were seconded by Russia).

The new government led by Shehbaz Sharif has tried to mend ties with the US and there has been engagement between senior officials from both sides, the most recent being the meeting between Blinken and Bhutto. The US has recently indicated that it would work to strengthen bilateral ties with Pakistan, the decision of the Biden administration to approve a $450 million package sustainment programme for Pakistan’s F16 fleet has been pointed to as a strong reiteration of the same. The US State Department said that Pakistan’s F16 fleet is an important component of the Pakistan-US relationship and will help Pakistan in it’s counter terrorism operations. This decision has been attributed to a number of factors including the possible use of Pakistani airspace by US for carrying out counter-terrorism operations. During his speech at the United Nations General Assembly, Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif also pointed to the threat posed by terror groups – including the Tehreek-I-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) operating from Afghanistan (a number of commentators have argued that Islamabad wants to work with Washington to counter the threat posed by TTP). The decision of the Biden administration was criticised by India, with senior officials expressing their reservations.  

Old timers in politics, strategic community and media – in both US and Pakistan want to prevent a further slide in bilateral relations in the changing global and regional geopolitical architecture. While it is true that Washington-Islamabad ties have improved in recent months, it is tough to not look at the bilateral relationship from the lens of China and Afghanistan.

[Photo by US Navy]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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