Of Unrealistic Expectations: The Future Of Strained US-Pak Relations

Of Unrealistic Expectations: The Future Of Strained US-Pak Relations
The troubled US-Pakistan partnership has hit a new low in the aftermath of America's cut and run from Afghanistan. Some US lawmakers want to punish Pakistan for orchestrating the Taliban takeover. Pakistan protests that it does not deserve to be the scapegoat for the US failure are not resonating in Washington.

Clashing interests, a lingering trust deficit, and unrealistic expectations have soured the complex relationship. But the swift rise of the Taliban has widened the schism between the two countries.

From Pakistan’s perspective, the benefits of dislodging a hostile India ‘friendly’ government in Kabul outweighed incurring US ire. Yet, by all measures, Pakistan needs the US. It has far more to lose if the relationship breaks down. The US has the economic, diplomatic, and military tools to make life hard for Pakistan.

Pakistan may avoid US sanctions for its actions in Afghanistan. But there is little doubt that US-Pakistan relations will look very different in the future. Can the US and Pakistan salvage the relationship or at the very least re-shape it to reflect present realities?

Right now, one feels that the onus is firmly on Pakistan to mend the relationship. The Biden administration does not see a ‘broad-based’ strategic partnership with Pakistan -- a clear signal Washington has downgraded ties from the heady highs of the past. 

Pakistan has said that the days of jumping hoops to meet the US demands are over. It dismissed concerns raised by some US think tanks over the increased risk of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists after the Taliban seizure of power in Afghanistan. 

Still, if Pakistan seeks to have a healthier relationship with the US, a more calibrated response is desirable. It involves deeper introspection and less bravado.

Here are a few points for consideration by policy-makers in Islamabad.

  1. Pakistan cannot adapt to recent seismic shifts in internal and external conditions. Emotional causes often hold national interests and pragmatism hostage. And the street power of radical Islam has constrained international options. These factors have caused disarray and drifts in foreign policy that the country can ill afford. The net result is fewer allies, limited diplomatic space, and strategic mobility.

  2. The collective triumphalism in Pakistan on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has not gone down well in Washington. The sanctimonious tone adopted by Pakistan’s leadership came across as amateurish point-scoring. It is not good diplomacy. And unwise -- as influential critics in the US feel that there is tangible evidence that Pakistan’s actions have contributed to its Afghan failure.
    Kicking a formidable superpower and ally down can only have damaging consequences. Adding to the humiliation that the US has suffered is foolish — it served to squander the remaining goodwill with the US — still one of Pakistan’s most important bilateral relationships.

  3. The illusions that Pakistan has that the US will balance its relations between India and Pakistan should disappear. America’s bi-partisan embrace of arch-rival India is an enduring reality. Instead of expressing resentment or making it a point of friction with the US, Islamabad must recognise this reality and factor it into its calculations. The US can play a crucial role in ensuring that India-Pakistan tensions do not escalate into a dangerous conflict.

US and India have a growing strategic congruence on the threats from China and political Islam. A notable point of friction between the US and Pakistan. The US sees India as a natural ally and a counterweight to China. India’s democratic credentials, trade potential, soft power, and influential diaspora in the US help. None of the advantages that Pakistan possesses.

Because of the US-India equation, the US will probably soft-pedal the growing democracy deficit in India under the BJP. But the US may raise the heat on Pakistan’s own dismal human rights record and democratic slide.

But China will not step in to rescue Pakistan through aid flows. Unlike the US, loans and trade are the way the Chinese do business. And the much-touted windfalls from loan-loaded CPEC and other Chinese investments are yet to materialise. 


4- After bitter experiences, Washington has realised that an aid-based relationship with Pakistan will not work. Over the years, big-ticket aid programs involving billions of dollars did not make Pakistan change course or make it a reliable ally.

While Pakistan has tried to reduce its dependence on economic and military help from the US, skewed national priorities have turned the country into a regional military power but an economic minnow. With self-reliance, a distant dream, and the ever-present threat of financial meltdown, Pakistan’s dependence on all-weather ally China has increased.

But China will not step in to rescue Pakistan through aid flows. Unlike the US, loans and trade are the way the Chinese do business. And the much-touted windfalls from loan-loaded CPEC and other Chinese investments are yet to materialise. 

The fact is that Pakistan will feel the absence of US aid that has propped up the country since its existence for many years. It needs US support for continued IMF-led multilateral funding and removal from the anti-money laundering watchdog FATF’s grey list.

Finally, the US and Pakistan should keep expectations low going forward. Removing the mistrust in the relationship will not be easy. Quiet diplomacy can reduce friction and improve cooperation. Finding common ground on fighting terrorism and maintaining peace and security in the region is a start.    

Saad Hafiz is an analyst and commentator. He can be reached at shgcci@gmail.com.