While there is an alignment of short-term security interests, particularly on counterterrorism, in the longer term the China-U.S. competition will hinder Pakistan-U.S. ties.
The only feature that has remained consistent throughout the history of the Pakistan-U.S. relationship is inconsistency. During the last 75 years, there have been phases of mutually beneficial convergences of interests yielding broader-based cooperation, but each such peak in the ties was followed by extended periods of estrangement. Accordingly, the Pakistan-U.S. relationship has been given many different characterizations – most notably, “transactional,” epitomizing “magnificent delusions,” and “riding the roller coaster” – all underscoring its consistently inconsistent quintessence.
Nevertheless, in the most recent case, following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Pakistan-U.S. relationship didn’t hit a nadir like in the previous instances when a proximate cause for cooperation was removed. Despite the dark shadows of deep divergences over the war in Afghanistan and resulting wariness, the two sides have maintained and, in some areas, bolstered cooperation across a range of fields including health, clean energy, disaster response, trade, and investments. The Pakistan-U.S. trade volume grew to reach $12 billion in 2022, and Washington maintained its status as one of the biggest foreign investors in Pakistan. Furthermore, following devastating climate-induced floods last year, the United States was among the top suppliers of relief goods to Pakistan, besides pledging a hefty sum of humanitarian aid.
In addition, the two sides have maintained security ties, though on a relatively modest scale. While the Trump administration had resumed the once-suspended military training program for Pakistan, the Biden administration went further. In September 2022, the State Department approved a foreign military sale worth $450 million for the maintenance of Pakistan’s F-16 program.
In February 2023, an inter-agency delegation from Pakistan visited Washington to attend the second round of the Pakistan-U.S. Defense Dialogue, which focused on bilateral defense and security cooperation. This month, media reports claimed that Islamabad has given a nod to the signing of the Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CIS-MOA) with Washington, which came days after the latest in a series of visits to Pakistan by General Michael “Erik” Kurilla, the commander of U.S. Central Command. The CIS-MOA was signed in 2005 for 15 years; its reinstatement now, after a three-year hiatus, coupled with the other defense interactions noted above reflects both sides’ willingness to maintain some degree of security cooperation.
Following its withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States remains concerned about terrorist groups finding a foothold again in the Taliban-ruled country. Despite pledges by the Taliban not to allow Afghan soil to be used against any other country, serious question marks remain about the group’s willingness and capability to fulfill its promises. The United States is particularly worried about al-Qaida – whose chief was killed by an American drone strike in the heart of Taliban-controlled Kabul – and the Islamic State, which after the rout in the Middle East is trying to gain a foothold in poorly governed Afghanistan.
On the other side, Pakistan has witnessed a massive upsurge in terrorist violence, mostly attributable to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has deep-rooted links with the Afghan Taliban and uses Afghan soil to carry out attacks against Pakistan. Despite continuous urging by Pakistan to rein in the TTP, the Taliban regime appears unwilling to act against the terror group, which has resulted in a major security concern for Pakistan along its western border.
From Washington’s standpoint, the desire to maintain security cooperation with Pakistan comes against the backdrop of the growing threat of terrorism from Afghanistan. As a priority, the United States would prefer the Taliban to fulfill the pledge made in the Doha Accords of not allowing terrorist groups to use Afghan soil. But should the Taliban fail to live up to their promises, Pakistan ought to be capable and willing to deal with the Afghanistan-based terrorist groups for its own sake – and to ensure that they don’t pose any serious threat to U.S. interests in the region or elsewhere.
For Pakistan – already dealing with the aftermath of the botched U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan – the continuation of security cooperation with Washington keeps alive the prospects of resuming foreign military financing and the sale of military hardware (ideally new procurements apart from maintenance packages), besides the continuation of military training programs. In addition, occasional statements by U.S. State Department officials reiterating that Washington will hold the Taliban to their counterterrorism commitments – and underscoring Pakistan’s right to defend itself against terrorism – are the desired music to the ears of Pakistan’s policymakers, who are seeking much-needed diplomatic support against intransigent Taliban. Not least, the resumption of the Pakistan-U.S. security ties augments Islamabad’s push for strategic neutrality (or nonalignment) in line with its pronounced and regularly stressed policy of aversion to getting entangled in bloc politics.
Notwithstanding the alignment of relatively short-term interests, the strategic chessboard offers a rather gloomy picture for the future of Pakistan-U.S. relations. Washington’s strategic priorities in South Asia and the wider Asia-Pacific region are shaped by its rivalry with China. India – Pakistan’s arch-rival – is pitched as a counterweight to Beijing in the larger anti-China balancing coalition that Washington aims to assemble in the region. New Delhi, for its part, is steadily jettisoning its long-proclaimed policy of strategic autonomy. Despite proclamations to the contrary, India is maneuvering itself to enter into a de facto alliance with the United States spanning a multitude of spheres.
Given the breadth and depth of its multidimensional relationship with Beijing, Pakistan is unlikely to become part of the anti-China balancing coalition. Pakistan is also not inclined to accept a geopolitical role secondary to India, even in a U.S.-led geopolitical dispensation.
Although so far Islamabad can rightfully claim some success in treading a fine line in balancing between the opposite power blocs, we are only at the beginning of viciously cruel zero-sum interplay between great powers, wherein middle powers are given stark choices. Washington has already made its European and Asian allies choose sides in the intensifying China-U.S. technological war. Given the zero-sum essence of the great power competition, it is only a matter of time before the countries vying to avoid choosing between opposite power blocs are put on notice to make tough and presumably undesirable choices.