We live in a world where binary alignments with global or regional hegemonic powers have become less crucial. Less powerful countries still align themselves with more powerful ones (as India does with the United States, or Pakistan with China), these bilateral relationships coexist more readily amidst myriad multilateral engagements.
India tires to engage with China while fashioning itself into a rising Asian power with the wherewithal to offer the US a strategic counterweight to curb Chinese influence in Asia. While the current US administration has been casting Chinese involvement in Pakistan as a zero-sum game, there is growing recognition within the US policymaking community that viewing Pakistan as being under the exclusive sphere of Chinese influence will in fact become a self-fulling prophecy, which must be avoided.
Long before 9/11, Pakistan played an important role in the broader network of US alliances that were spread across Europe to the Middle East to Asia. Besides joining the then emerging Cold War alliances in the 1950s, namely the Central Treaty Organization (Ceato) and Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (Sento), Pakistan also helped facilitate the US rapprochement with China in the 1970s. It also found itself aligning twice with the US in Afghanistan — first against the Soviets, and then in the post-9/11 context.
During these different junctures, Pakistan has benefitted from US largess even if this largess was transactional in nature. Also, the US has played a major role in managing the protracted conflict between Pakistan and India, the significance of which has become more vital after the nuclearisation of the Indian Sub-continent.
The relationship between Pakistan and the US has not been easy. The prospects for cooperation between the two countries have been undermined by a growing divergence in terms of how both countries began to view one another, and their interests vis-à-vis other regional players — especially China, India and Afghanistan.
The US has shown increasing disdain for Pakistan’s “ambivalent” role in Afghanistan. American mistrust of Pakistan has been matched by Pakistan’s resentment for being arm-twisted into the “fight against terror” in Afghanistan, which soon spilled over the porous border to inflict a heavy price in Pakistan too.
Their mutual co-dependency (Pakistan’s dependence on American military and financial aid, and America’s dependence on Pakistan to meet its security dominated objectives in the region) has produced recurrent spurts of cooperation and recrimination, rather than a comprehensive and stable framework of bilateral cooperation.
There is an evident need to overcome the apparent turbulence in this bilateral relationship, which remains important for both these countries. While the US is physically withdrawing from Afghanistan, it wants to keep working with Pakistan to prevent Afghanistan’s descent into chaos, where groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) become stronger. On the other hand, Pakistan could also do with increased US support to help bolster its image and standing in the international community at large.
Both Pakistan and the US would benefit from a more nuanced approach towards each other due to their own pragmatic reasons. Pakistan and the US need not find themselves on opposing sides of being a junior or the senior partner within a Sino-India strategic rivalry.
The US can keep pursuing its relationship with India, but it must find ways to engage with India in a manner that does not further undermine the Pakistan-US relationship. Pakistan’s growing reliance on China could also be better managed if Pakistan can identify means to simultaneously develop a more stable partnership with the US based on mutual national interests.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 13th, 2020.