The U.S.’s troubled relationship with Pakistan continues to be eroded by crisis after crisis. Leave alone the pretense of any strategic convergence, the two countries are finding it difficult to maintain even a transactional relationship. If events surrounding a short visit by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Islamabad are any indicator, it will not be easy to reduce the trust gap in bilateral ties.
Pakistan’s new prime minister, Imran Khan, would not have expected that his government’s engagement with the U.S. would begin with the announcement of the suspension of more than $300 million in aid to Pakistan or a controversy over the substance of a phone call between Pompeo and Khan.
Pompeo’s short stopover in Islamabad, during which time he was accompanied by chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, was not expected to result in a major breakthrough. Though a cautiously optimistic Pompeo expressed his willingness to reset the tense relationship and his hopes that the two sides would “find common ground,” he also stated that he expected Pakistan to do more in fighting terrorism on its soil and bringing the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table.
Pompeo’s visit, which was greeted with skepticism and resentment in many quarters in Pakistan, had its own share of controversies even before he landed in Islamabad. The most prominent was over a telephone conversation with Khan on Aug. 23. A description of the call released by the U.S. State Department stated that Pompeo had raised “the importance of Pakistan taking decisive action against all terrorists operating in Pakistan and its vital role in promoting the Afghan peace process.” But Pakistan’s Foreign Office angrily rejected the statement, arguing that “there was no mention at all in the conversation about terrorists operating in Pakistan.” When Pakistan asked the State Department to “immediately correct” the statement, the latter stood its ground and asserted that there would be no correction. Mian Raza Rabbani, an opposition party leader and former chairman of Pakistan’s Senate, viewed this episode as America’s “new way of exerting pressure” on Pakistan and went to the extent of asking Khan not to meet Pompeo.
Although Pakistan is unhappy with the latest cut in military aid, it preferred not to raise the issue with Pompeo—or so Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi wanted to convey. In particular, Islamabad needs American backing to get an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout to ease its dire economic situation.
Adopting a somewhat conciliatory tone even before Pompeo’s visit, Qureshi reminded the U.S. that the cancelled amount was not aid but the expenses incurred in the fight against terrorism, while emphasizing that Pakistan wanted a good relationship with the U.S. And soon after Pompeo’s departure, Qureshi claimed that Pompeo’s meetings with Pakistani leadership had “created an atmosphere to reset our relations, and the lack of trust that was present has been broken.” The new Pakistani government seems to have realized that bravado alone would not work to find new imperatives for rebuilding the fractured relationship.
There was neither a joint statement nor a joint press conference after Pompeo’s meetings, which indicated little convergence of views worth making public. However, the fact that meetings took place without any public acrimony and rancor was itself an achievement in a country where the mood on the street is decisively anti-American. In fact, Khan had tapped this very sentiment shrewdly when he was in the opposition camp, employing sharply anti-American rhetoric in his electoral speeches. Since coming to power, he has maintained that Pakistan is interested in having better ties with the U.S., ones that should be based on mutual benefit and respect. But public posturing has not been abandoned: the day after Pompeo’s visit, Khan delivered a speech at the General Headquarters of the Pakistan Army, where he vowed to “never participate in anyone’s war.” This was an unmistakable reference to the U.S. war on terror.
Islamabad must have noticed the joint statement that followed a meeting between India’s foreign and defense ministers and their U.S. counterparts, which delivered a harsh rebuke to Pakistan. Criticizing the U.S for adopting a “wrongheaded” approach, a sensible editorial in the Dawn newspaper nonetheless lambasted the military establishment for being “in denial about elements of its counter-militancy, counterterrorism and counter-extremism strategies.”
With the Pentagon continuing to put pressure on Islamabad to deliver on the Taliban front, the official interaction between the two countries has been significantly reduced, though military-to-military contacts have survived. However, Trump’s decision to suspend military assistance to Pakistan has also resulted in the U.S. suspending training and educational programs for Pakistani military officers, allowing Russia to draw even closer to Pakistan. Last month, Moscow agreed to open the doors of its military academies to Pakistani military officers.
Washington’s demand for compliance on counterterrorism is not tolerable to Pakistan. The fact that Pompeo and Dunford were greeted at the airport by a lower-level foreign ministry official has been interpreted as Pakistan’s indirect snub to the Trump administration. Additionally, the appointment of Afghan-born American diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad as special envoy to Afghanistan, who has been mandated to focus on reconciliation and peace talks with the Taliban, has been seen in Islamabad as the U.S. tightening the noose around Pakistan. Khalilzad is viewed with suspicion in Pakistan. Due to his criticism of Pakistan’s covert policy of sheltering and training the Taliban, Pakistan’s military establishment has every reason to dislike him. Moreover, Pakistan’s noted journalist Zahid Hussain has raised several doubts about Khalilzad’s ability to bring together various Afghan groups for a political settlement. Not surprisingly, the chairman of Pakistan’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mushahid Hussain, has termed Khalilzad’s appointment “a bad choice” that has sent “a negative message to Islamabad” due to his inability “to rise beyond his prejudices against Pakistan.”
Clearly, Khalilzad has his task cut out for him. At a time when the Taliban is trying to maximize its recent advances on the battlefield in order to win greater concessions from the U.S. at the negotiating table, the Trump administration is demanding Pakistan play a more proactive role in facilitating the political dialogue in Afghanistan. But this will be easier said than done while the overall aims set by Washington and Islamabad are driven by divergent perspectives and contradictory expectations. It remains an open question as to how Khan will construct a fresh bargain with the U.S. on Afghanistan when the trust deficit between the U.S. and Pakistan runs so deep. Looking beyond the current frictions, prospects of U.S.-Pakistan ties returning to normal do not look bright under the current adverse circumstances. Until Afghanistan stabilizes, American pressure on Pakistan is not likely to diminish.
Photo: Muhhamad Reza/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images