Pakistan’s “American Problem” Is Going Nowhere
Months after President Joe Biden announced the full, irreversible and long-awaited withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, the last contingent of US troops has left Kabul. This safe exit was facilitated by a cooperation agreement between Washington and the Afghan Taliban, a group that the former uprooted in 2001 and against which it has fought ever since. The fact that the United States left Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban reflects how it failed to prevent the insurgent group from recovering what it had lost due to Operation Enduring Freedom: Control absolute of Afghanistan. The dismal US failure to stop the Taliban from organizing a comeback, many argue, is but the result of Pakistan’s groundless and unwavering adherence to its “strategic and proxy trump card” in the Afghan Taliban . Daniel Markey noted in an editorial published by Foreign Affairs that “the Taliban would not exist today without the support of Pakistan”. Markey’s argument is not new. For Washington, Islamabad’s so-called highly touted duplicity had hampered its entire strategy and schemes for Kabul. Islamabad, on the other hand, has accepted and continues to make exceptions to these claims. In addition, he looks askance at attempts to scapegoat for the unrest in Afghanistan. Instead, Pakistan has grappled with its American problem for two decades. Washington has been unable to cope with a series of problems it created for itself when it severed ties with Islamabad. This became a precursor to his shameful flight from Afghanistan. There are two elements that have shaped Pakistan’s perennial problem in America.
Do more, advise less
In the wake of the September 11 attacks, Pakistan has become a willful frontline ally in the US-led global war on terror. The decision turned out to be costly, as the country lost both men and equipment and still has not fully recovered from the deleterious ramifications of the wave of terrorism that followed. Much of what Pakistan has gone through is a direct result of the heckling and chaos in Afghanistan. For its part, Pakistan has tried to persuade the United States not to invade Afghanistan, not to regroup the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and to engage diplomatically with the Taliban. But the United States, despite the first overtures of the Taliban, did not want it. Washington not only scoffed at Islamabad’s advice, but also attributed the negative fallout from its military-centric policies to Pakistan’s not doing enough.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan says US accusing Pakistan of playing a double game, despite the latter making meritorious sacrifices in a war he had nothing to do with, marked the worst phase of relations Pakistani-American. The do-more mantra, coupled with its continued reluctance to take Pakistan’s peace plans seriously, has become a major stumbling block in bilateral relations. However, on the basis of commitments at the highest levels, Washington has agreed to engage substantially with the Afghan Taliban in a process of dialogue that Islamabad has facilitated. While Islamabad hailed the Doha deal signed between Washington and the Taliban, it warned Washington against withdrawing without making progress towards establishing an inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan. However, rather than paying attention to seemingly practical advice, the United States rushed off. Moreover, American interlocutors continue to expect Pakistan to do the heavy lifting in Afghanistan, even after the United States leaves.
Sovereignty, India and China
In a 2011 appearance in BBC HardtalkKhan flayed the United States for carrying out the airstrikes in Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden. He described the act as an indication of how Washington disrespected Islamabad. Khan asked the question: Does the Pakistani government have any semblance of sovereignty? He vowed to wage the war on terrorism as Prime Minister without being seen as a lackey of the United States. Even today, the question of sovereignty dictates Khan’s political positions on the United States; Pakistani-US relations continue to be strained due to Washington’s utter disregard for the territorial integrity of Islamabad. A relentless drone campaign, the Raymond Davis saga, the Abbottabad raid, and the kinetic brazen action against Pakistani soldiers in Salala, were clear examples of how the United States failed to respect the sovereignty of a country they called an ally.
All of this is coupled with Washington’s growing strategic bonhomie with New Delhi. The United States has backed India with a wave of defense deals, including a nuclear deal that jeopardizes its goals of non-proliferation and strategic stability in the region and beyond. These weapons and surveillance capabilities of the United States have not only emboldened an India that otherwise accepts risks, but they have also undermined the credibility and influence of the United States to act as an effective mediator. The United States is expected to turn back if India launches kinetic actions against Pakistan while pressuring the latter to withdraw. While the United States will not be offering carrots, it will certainly be ready to use sticks against Pakistan in the future. Indeed, the United States could simply ratify actions that undermine the prospect of maintaining strategic stability in South Asia.
Another factor adding to the already complex relationship is Pakistan’s nascent strategic partnership with China. The Sino-American rivalry has had an effect on Pakistan as the United States has openly expressed its reservations about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Pakistan’s determination to improve its economic security profile is reason enough for it to view statements against CPEC as veiled threats to its sovereignty. In addition, the Sino-Pak concert might not appeal to the United States due to the openness of both countries to engage with a Taliban-led Afghanistan. Rabia Akhtar recently drew attention to China’s positive outlook on developments in Afghanistan. “China’s impact on regional stability should not be underestimated and while Beijing wishes to fill the political vacuum created by the US withdrawal, it is also ready to take a leadership role in bringing its member current and potential of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) countries in the region come together on one platform to achieve its economic ambitions in South Asia, ”Akhtar said in a brief analysis published on the website of the Atlantic Council.
While this will effectively open up avenues for regional connectivity, it will give China much more space and voice in the region, which is not in the US national interest. Pakistan, as China’s junior and most important regional partner, will be in the thick of it.
All of this, coupled with Washington’s lack of appetite to recalibrate its ties with Islamabad, means the United States will have more freedom to frame Pakistan on many issues. The safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons could be one of the issues that could again become a bone of contention between the two countries. Then the United States could step up its criticism of Pakistan for its alleged support for terrorist groups, lack of media freedom, and other anomalies. One would then expect the United States to tighten the noose around Pakistan by influencing international organizations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
While Pakistan has repeatedly expressed its willingness to broaden the scope of its relations with the United States, the latter’s nonchalant approach has further compounded Pakistan’s concerns about bilateral relations. The American offer to have stable and productive relations with Pakistan has been and is not complemented by the actions required to achieve them. Pakistan has continuously tried to set the record straight, dispel many false impressions and support the United States. However, he was unable to escape America’s attitude prejudices and structural barriers. The American problem of Pakistan is not likely to dissipate anytime soon.
Syed Ali Zia Jaffery is Associate Researcher, Center for Security, Strategy and Policy Research (CSSPR), University of Lahore.