Both the US and Pakistan seem to be in damage control mode, and they have been making efforts to send a clear message — that while they have significant differences on important strategic issues, neither side can allow the relationship to drift any further.
Before Pakistan Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua met with officials in the Trump Administration during her visit to Washington on March 7-8, 2018, some significant remarks were made by senior US officials in the context of bilateral ties between Pakistan and US, as well as the role of Pakistan in regional stability (specifically in the context of Afghanistan).
On March 5, the US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Alice Well stated: “We’re certainly not walking away from Pakistan. There will be very intensive dialogue through both our military and our civilian channels to discuss how we can work together … Pakistan has an important role to play in helping to stabilise Afghanistan.”
There were also some words of appreciation for Pakistan’s counter-terrorism efforts. While addressing the US Senate Arms Committee, the Director of Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Lt Gen Robert P Ashley said: “These efforts of Islamabad have had some success in reducing violence from militant, sectarian, terrorist, and separatist groups, but Pakistan will look to the United States and the Afghan government for support against anti-Pakistan fighters in Afghanistan.”
These statements came days after Lisa Curtis, the US National Security Council’s senior director for South and Central Asia visited Pakistan and engaged with Pakistani officials including Tehmina Janjua as well as Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal.
The main aim of Curtis’ visit was to do stock taking of the bilateral relationship which has been going downhill over the past few months. First, the US suspended military aid to Pakistan, and then it had played a key role in getting Pakistan on the grey list of the international financial watchdog Financial Action Task Force, whose primary job is to keep a close watch on regulations pertaining to money laundering and terrorist financing. While initially Saudi Arabia and China were not willing to support a motion which sought to put Pakistan on the grey list, US pressure helped.
In January, the US President tweeted: “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”
Four days later, over USD 1 billion of military aid to Pakistan was suspended, including over USD 255 million in foreign military funding, and USD 900 million in Coalition Support Funds to Pakistan. US officials however stated that this was a temporary measure, and if Pakistan took tangible steps against terror groups, the US would reconsider its decision. Curtis during her visit urged Pakistan to take steps against terror groups (including the Haqqani network), and flagged US concerns regarding the shortcomings in Pakistan’s anti-terrorist financing controls.
The US statements regarding Pakistan’s relevance in the context of Afghanistan should be read in view of Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani’s decision to get Taliban on board. Pakistan had welcomed this decision. Pakistan’s National Security Advisor Nasser Janjua in his meeting with Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan Omar Zakhilwal stated : “Peace in Afghanistan is essential for peace in Pakistan. Pakistan believes in a vision of common and shared future with the people of Afghanistan; that is why Pakistan has all along supported efforts for political reconciliation under... peace initiatives.”
US engagement with Pakistan should be welcomed by New Delhi, as it will ensure that Washington has leverage to push Pakistan to act against the terrorist groups targeting India.
During Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua’s visit, both sides reiterated the need for continuous engagement and the importance of a sound bilateral relationship. During her visit, the Foreign Secretary met with senior US officials including the US Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan at the State Department and Deputy National Security Advisor Dr. Nadia Schadlow at the White House. She also had discussions with South Asia experts at the US Institute of Peace. Tehmina Janjua stated that both countries share a very important relationship, which is not restricted to any one issue: “Our bilateral relationship is not just about Afghanistan, we have a history of cooperation in several fields, and we have asked the United States to restart the structured strategic dialogue.”
She also spoke about the need for deepening dialogue between Pakistan-US at all levels, and the importance of regional stability especially peace in Afghanistan. The decision to appoint a new Pakistani envoy to the US was also taken during the Foreign Secretary’s trip. The Pakistan government appointed investment banking expert and special assistant to the Prime Minister, Ali Jahangir Siddiqui, as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US. By appointing a non-career diplomat who is relatively young and who has worked so closely with the PM, Pakistan would like to signal that it wants to infuse fresh thinking and greater urgency so as to put the relationship back on track.
Both Islamabad and Washington will not slam the door on their relationship. First, the US would not want to lose leverage over Islamabad given its important geopolitical location. There are sections on both sides which do have a strong comfort level and have developed strong ties over the years. During his visit to the US in February 2018, Ahsan Iqbal had cited the geopolitical relevance of Pakistan, arguing that it was imperative for both to work jointly in Afghanistan.
Second, Pakistan too realizes that overdependence upon China will not help. It would like to keep a working relationship with US. There is an increasing discomfort with China’s increasing clout in the economic and political sphere, through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. This has been expressed not just by the country’s business community, but senior politicians as well. Interestingly, Pakistan’s ties with Russia which have improved are driven not just by anti-US sentiment, as has been argued, but also to give Pakistan options beyond China.
Ghani’s decision to engage with the Taliban is also important. In such a situation, the US would want Pakistan to cooperate and play a positive role in regional stability. While the Pakistan army will not give in very easily, continuous pressure from Washington along with Beijing (which also has economic interests in Afghanistan) may help.
India will be watching this closely. US engagement with Pakistan should be welcomed by New Delhi, as it will ensure that Washington has leverage to push Pakistan to act against the terrorist groups targeting India — Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JuD), LeT (Lashkar-e-Taiba) and Jaish-e-Mohammed. Currently, Pakistan has been in denial with regard to the activities of these groups and has not taken any concrete steps against them. JuD Chief, and mastermind of the Mumbai terror attacks, Hafiz Saeed will in fact be putting up candidates in the 2018 general election under the banner of the Milli Muslim League (MML) Party. Saeed was put under house arrest in January 2017 due to external pressure (the US had put a bounty of USD 10 million on Saeed), but was released in November 2017. The Pakistan army may provide support to MML in the general election to weaken the PML-N.
In conclusion, Washington’s engagement with Pakistan is important, and will be watched closely. It remains to be seen whether President Trump keeps sustained pressure on Pakistan to act against terrorist groups, and whether Washington can effectively use both the carrot and the stick. If Washington can get Pakistan (specifically its army) to alter its approach towards its neighbors, the biggest beneficiary will be South Asia.