This year, Pakistan and the United States mark 75 years of bilateral ties. Yet this milestone presents not as much an occasion for celebration as it does the need for rethinking the future.
Of course, Pakistan-U.S. ties spanning all fields of mutual interest throughout 75 years present much to celebrate. However, this history is fraught with recurring issues rooted in the structure and priorities of these ties.
Although political dialogue and diplomacy continue, a lasting improvement in the US-Pakistan ties requires the two countries to reimagine themselves as equal partners aiming to improve functional cooperation in non-controversial areas of mutual interest.
The Relations between Pakistan and the United States recently witnessed a downfall. Anti-Americanism in Pakistan has risen due to the political narrative of the fallen leader Imran Khan, according to which the United States supported his ouster.
Similarly, negative perceptions and distrust of Pakistan among American leaders and people persist, even though The War on Terror is over.
In the recent past, the United States frequently expressed its distrust of Pakistan and demanded more devotion to fighting the “War Against Terror” than Pakistan was willing. Moreover, the Biden administration blamed Pakistan for its failure in Afghanistan.
However, as the United States moves beyond its failures in Afghanistan and the new Pakistani government settles in, both seem ready to improve their ties. Several positive developments have taken place on the diplomatic front.
Moreover, visits of U.S. officials to Pakistan –including Under Secretary Uzra Zeya’s trip in March, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s unofficial visit in April, and Special Representative for Business Affairs Dilawar Syed’s in July– attempted to improve bilateral ties.
In addition, the position of U.S. Ambassador, which was left vacant for four years, was recently occupied by Donald Blome, who presented his credentials to President Alvi in July. Likewise, the Pakistani Ambassador in Washington, Masood Khan, was welcomed by President Joe Biden at the White House.
However significant these diplomatic overtures may be, they do not attempt to do what these relations require. Such improvements follow each dip in relations as part of routine diplomacy to satisfy both nations’ basic diplomatic needs.
These are attempts to “improve” relations while retaining the historically established bilateral structure that puts geopolitics at the center.
Established Structure of Bilateral Ties
The bilateral tensions were never a result of a lack of diplomatic engagement or political consultations. Instead, the tensions emanate from the very structure that has hitherto shaped bilateral relations.
These relations were structured by America’s goals and interests in the region as a global superpower and its efforts to leverage Pakistan’s geostrategic location to its advantage throughout the Cold War and up to the War on Terror.
In turn, Pakistan demanded extensive military aid and economic assistance, which it used to pursue its national interests, sometimes against the U.S. wishes.
It resulted in an uneasy and distrustful strategic alliance in which Pakistan was a junior and resentful partner of a forceful superpower. An alliance that was achieved through a compromise between Pakistan’s (often undemocratic) ruling elites and U.S. interests. Pakistan-U.S. relations have been distinguished by mutual exploitation rather than genuine win-win cooperation.
The strategic and geopolitical interests have determined the structure of bilateral ties between the two nations. Presently, Pakistan and the United States are no longer political allies. Hence, the relations cannot move ahead with geopolitics still at the center.
Pakistan does not play a significant role in the current U.S. scheme of interests. The United States has explicitly recognized China as the main threat to its global ambitions. In this regard, it has built consensus with the Trans-Atlantic Community.
It is also working to build a network of allies in the Indo-Pacific region, a region closer to China. The United States has spearheaded the IPEF, the Quad, and other multilateral mechanisms in the Indo-Pacific to counter China. Its efforts to counter China did not slow down even while the Russian invasion of Ukraine is ongoing.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s interests include stability in Afghanistan, the Kashmir issue, and the completion of CPEC.
In Afghanistan, Pakistan seeks a relatively friendly country considerate of its security concerns irrespective of who administers it and how. While the United States maintains criteria for an acceptable Afghan government that doesn’t include being considerate of Pakistan’s concerns.
They also disagree on how to deal with the Taliban, with Pakistan preferring engagement while the United States utilizes financial and diplomatic pressure.
The United States may still see Kashmir as an opportunity to remain a relevant player in the South Asian security order, as India and Pakistan previously relied on the U.S. willingness to mediate between them as an escalation-control mechanism.
However, India, although allied with the United States against China in the Indo-Pacific, prefers its own way on other matters, disregarding whether its policy decisions are in line with U.S. priorities.
Seeing itself as an emerging power, India rejects any official U.S. role in Kashmir, which it sees as an internal matter. In light of this, the United States will not be able to play a role in Kashmir up to Pakistan’s satisfaction.
As for the CPEC, Pakistani and U.S. views diverge as the United States sees the BRI, of which CPEC is a part, as a source of Chinese power. On the other hand, Pakistan deems its completion essential for its national goals. Pakistan’s friendly relations with China and hostile relations with India (a U.S. partner in the Indo-Pacific) complicate the Pakistan-U.S. strategic calculus.
In terms of geopolitics, the United States and Pakistan have diverged, and this divergence may still grow with the China-US competition. This leaves no space for strategic convergence between Pakistan and the United States. A possibility of even an uneasy and distrustful strategic alliance like in the past has diminished.
Moving Beyond Geopolitics
However, the two countries should not solely define their relationship based on convergence or divergence in their geopolitical interests.
The United States and Pakistan have to restructure their relationship by grounding them upon functional cooperation in fields of mutual interest and seeking win-win outcomes, even though these areas may not prove to be of immediate geopolitical significance.
Reimagining Pakistan-U.S. ties in this vein have become possible in the light of several factors.
Firstly, the increasing non-traditional challenges such as climate change is forcing the countries to look beyond narrow geopolitics to solve common and interconnected issues.
Pakistan-U.S. ties encompass far more than geopolitics. Significant cooperation in the fields of education, health, development, climate change, food security, science and technology, trade, etc., has thrived throughout the 75 years of the bilateral relationship.
Such cooperation will arguably garner more importance in the light of the emerging non-traditional challenges, and both nations can base their future relations on such ties
Secondly, both nations have already maintained functional cooperation for 75 years. For instance, during the Covid19 pandemic, the United States became the largest vaccine donor to Pakistan.
It is only one small instance among a long list of successful functional cooperation in various fields positively impacting the daily lives of common people.
Still, public knowledge of such cooperation remains negligible in both countries as geopolitics overshadows these developments. What is required is to bring such cooperation to the forefront of future ties.
Moreover, the United States would seek to engage with countries within China’s orbit of influence to maintain channels of dialogue. While practically within China’s growing orbit of global influence, Pakistan’s official stance toward China-U.S. competition calls for a balanced approach between the two.
It has expressed disdain for emerging bloc politics and offered to serve as a bridge between China and the United States. The United States wants Pakistan to retain this stance. To that end, it requires healthy relations with Pakistan. Both countries cannot produce the desired ties through difficult geopolitical compromises but through win-win cooperation.
Instead of temporary improvements in bilateral relations, the United States and Pakistan should begin their ties anew, centered around workable, mutually beneficial priorities not overshadowed by geopolitics. The current global situation and the willingness of the leadership of both nations for a continued dialogue present an opportunity to realize this goal.
* The writer is a student of international relations and working as a research fellow at The Diplomatic Insight and Institute of Peace and Diplomatic Studies
*The views expressed and research conducted by the writer are his own and do not necessarily represent the position of the institutions.