Why is Pakistan Distancing Itself from the US?
Photo Credit: Pakistan Today
By Muhammad Daim Fazil

Why is Pakistan Distancing Itself from the US?

Nov. 28, 2017  |     |  0 comments

One country that stands significant in Pakistan’s foreign policy and with whom it has never fought a war but yet remains under a multifaceted threat is none other than the United States. Both countries have entered their seventh decade of bilateral engagements, which have been subject to asymmetrical love and hate. Being fragile on the political front and dependent in the economic and military arenas, Pakistan endures the negative outcomes while the United States’ comfort in these areas has left it with little damage. A series of events however, that emerged in early 2010s, including the Osama bin Laden raid in Abbottabad, the Salala Check Post incident, the Raymond Davis episode, and Pakistan’s continuous support for the Haqqani network, have all proved detrimental for a relationship that had been reinvigorated after Pakistan became a front-line ally in the US War on Terror.


Pakistan’s Grievances


Immediately after 1947, Pakistan drew a sheer line of allegiance with the US in a bipolar world. That tilt went on to last for seven decades with only slight hiccups. Allying with the US during the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan in the 1980s and then joining hands with Washington in its Global War on Terror after 2001, Pakistan hoped that a working relationship with a superpower would strengthen its regional standing and position it comfortably against the traditional threat from India. Pakistani expectations however, have witnessed only partial success. The last few years have intensified the squeeze in bilateral engagements.


After becoming a non-NATO ally and the first choice in routing militant networks from Afghanistan, Pakistan showed complete commitment to US demands. A decade and a half later, however, Washington sees Pakistani sacrifices and all out efforts with suspicion. Voices to label Pakistan as a friend of militants are not new, and these signs of distrust started to surface as early as 2007 when Washington asked then-President Pervez Musharraf to “do more.” It is only the change of command now that has increased numbers of voices against Pakistan. The trust deficit is sinking to new lows as the United States under President Donald Trump is tightening screws to yield desired outcomes from Pakistan.


In August, during his first formal address to the nation as commander-in-chief, President Trump announced his long-awaited Afghan and South Asia Strategy and lambasted Pakistan for its alleged role in harboring terrorists. He said: “We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars and at the same time they are housing the very terrorists” that are fighting against the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) forces in Afghanistan.


In October, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Pakistan with a message to deliver. After wrapping up his visits to the three states of India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, Tillerson stated that the onus was not to lecture Pakistan but to communicate to them the need to eradicate terrorism, or else the US will do it “a different way.”


Pakistan in return criticized Trump’s new Afghan policy and called his remarks as an effort to “scapegoat their country, and accused the American military of failing to defeat the 16-year-old Afghan Taliban insurgency. Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi addressing the UN General Assembly said: “Having suffered and sacrificed so much due to our role in the global counterterrorism campaign, it is especially galling for Pakistan to be blamed for the military or political stalemate in Afghanistan.”


Later, in an official visit to America, Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif also dispatched a stern response to Trump’s remarks: “Don’t just blame Pakistan. We are not saying that we are saints. Perhaps in the past we made some mistakes. But since the last three, four years we are whole-heartedly, single-mindedly targeting these terrorists.”

The fact remains that despite their innumerable policy differences, neither the US nor Pakistan can sever ties.

Another issue that has triggered Islamabad is the US decision to cut both economic and military aid to Pakistan in recent years. In addition, the Trump administration has withheld USD 350 million from the Coalition Support Fund after US Defense Secretary James Mattis showed his discomposure over Islamabad’s failure to act against the resurgent Haqqani Network. Washington’s economic assistance has likewise been significantly reduced. From 2002-13, the US had paid USD 788 million annually to Islamabad, but the current assistance is now as low as USD 345 million. The major part of the financial assistance is off-budget, which means that it does not factor in the finance ministry’s annual planning. Furthermore, the US could not achieve its desired outcomes from the five-year USD 7.5 billion Kerry-Lugar Bill that was initiated in 2009. Islamabad received nothing from this non-military Bill after 2013.


US opposition to mega projects in Pakistan, including the multimillion dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), has also irked Islamabad. Last month, Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that CPEC runs through territory on which India claims its authority. Pakistan in return described CPEC as nothing but a “development and connectivity project” that would benefit the people of the region. US concerns about the project, which in the Pakistani public’s opinion is a new lifeline for its turbulent economy, sparked a new debate within the country, with many calling for a serious response to Washington.


Not too long ago, the US had also expressed its displeasure with the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline project. After absorbing the United States’ opposition, India unconditionally distanced itself from the project, leaving Iran and Pakistan to decide its fate. Being an energy-starved nation, Pakistan sought after Iranian gas, but its efforts in this regard didn’t materialize, in part owing to US-led global sanctions on Iran.


Diminishing Dependency


Islamabad believes that despite showing compliance to the “do more” mantra, the US has undermined Pakistani efforts by blocking aid. Besides, a larger role for India in Afghanistan is also a matter of serious concern which Washington has not taken into serious account.

Washington’s hard stances together with conditional aid and bypassing strategic apprehensions have compelled Pakistan to seek other options regarding foreign policy. Therefore, the decades-long dependency on Washington is shrinking while Beijing is transforming into Pakistan’s next big-time ally. Islamabad sees China’s planned USD 62 billion investment in CPEC as a means of boosting economic growth and transforming Pakistan into a regional trade gateway. Massive Chinese investment and its backing on key policy issues (blocking India’s efforts to put forth a UN resolution calling Masood Azhar a terrorist and speaking up in favor of Pakistani sacrifices in the War on Terror) in the international arena have sheltered Pakistan from US pressure.


Recently, Moscow and Islamabad have also started to enlarge their bilateral relationship which had been hijacked by mistrust during the Cold War era. After lifting an arms embargo in 2014, Russia has begun providing important military hardware to Pakistan. Furthermore, both sides have chosen to leave their bitter past behind and have conducted joint military exercises twice in the last two years. These latest developments on the foreign policy front indicate Islamabad’s recognition that it now has enough support from China and Russia to refuse US demands.


Healing Wounds


However, the fact remains that despite their innumerable policy differences, neither the US nor Pakistan can sever ties. If Pakistan keeps supporting the Haqqani Network, the US Congress may come in hard to grill Pakistan and may also discredit Pakistani efforts at tackling terrorism in its long War on Terror. Likewise, it will simply be inappropriate for Washington to disassociate working terms with Islamabad since Pakistan still is its best remedy to the Afghan conundrum.


Pakistan’s burgeoning ties with China and Russia have also allowed it to stop taking dictation from the US. Back-to-back visits of high-ranking US officials to Islamabad (and vice-versa), together with the recent freeing of a Canadian couple from Taliban captivity, show that both sides actually don’t want to reach the point of a complete breakup. Any such breakup could lead to regional chaos given the volatility of the Afghan maze and the trouble-shooter role that Pakistan can play there.


There are plenty of areas, particularly the anti-terrorism drive and the restoration of peace in Afghanistan, where only mutual efforts could yield desired results, and therefore both sides must determine their differences and rearrange their terms of engagement.

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