The heated verbal exchange between President Trump and Prime Minister Imran Khan reflects the broken relationship between the US and Pakistan. The shotgun alliance was forced on the parties by the Global War on Terror (GWOT). It has since turned into a shambolic display of finger-pointing and recrimination.
Diverging even clashing interests make for tense and mistrustful ties. The question is whether the relationship is doomed or can it be redefined to mirror the new realities?
Not natural allies, the US-Pakistan alliance was built on shaky foundations. The US in the 1950-60s essentially bought Pakistan as one of a string of client states to contain the Soviet communist juggernaut. A weak and needy Pakistan facing a perceived Indian threat was quite happy to do the USs bidding in exchange for billions of dollars in military and economic aid.
In a nutshell, Pakistan is just another failure of American overreach, seen the world over. The US relationship with Pakistans capricious elite didnt permeate down to the people at large. The Pakistani street never shared in the temporary enthusiasm that the countrys military dictators and politicians had for the US in the good times.
Another thorn in the US-Pakistan relationship is the USs growing partnership with India. In addition, for the US to blame Pakistan for its own failures in Afghanistan doesnt help the frayed relationship. Pakistanis, by in large, despise the US as an untrustworthy and duplicitous country. They feel that the small American military and economic aid isnt worth compromising their countrys sovereignty.
From the USs perspective, it has overspent to bolster Pakistan. In return, Pakistan hasnt delivered what it promised. To make matters worse, it allegedly protected Osama Bin Laden, the USs former public enemy number one. The US-Pakistan relationship is much worse now because US policymakers and the public (to the extent they know Pakistan) have finally decided that Pakistan has been taking them for a ride long enough.
Pakistan is an easy target in Trumps plain-spoken, often humiliating approach to diplomacy. The US wants Pakistan to continue to do what it thinks it paid for. But Pakistan is resistant as it is no longer feels it needs to fulfil all of the USs demands and wishes. But Pakistan may do well to remember, that the US as a superpower, enjoys considerably more leverage in this unequal relationship.
From what we know of the great Chinese success story built on no-nonsense hard work and sacrifice, the Pakistanis shouldnt be under any illusion that China will be an overindulgent all-weather friend easily taken for a ride like the naïve Americans.
Since its creation, Pakistan hasnt managed to break out of the mould of a rentier state. Whether with the US or other partners, the desire to trade Pakistans utility for military and economic assistance is part of the national psyche. The countrys rulers have regularly rented out the countrys strategic location and burgeoning military strength to the highest bidder to maintain the economic and political status quo. The accumulated result of poor decisions is that the country faces existential threats from financial dependency, home-grown terrorism, and religious obscurantism today.
Of immediate interest to both the US and Pakistan is a secure, stable, prosperous Afghanistan. In the present circumstances, without US-Pakistan cooperation, this outcome is a bit of a pipe-dream. Moreover, clashing interests between the US and Pakistan will prolong the conflict in Afghanistan with negative consequences for regional peace. Clearly, an Afghan peace process, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-led, without foreign interference has the best chance of success.
The other interest of the US is to ensure that Pakistan doesnt end up a failed state. Washington wants a stable Pakistan able to contain the non-state actors on its soil who threaten regional stability. It wants to ensure that the Pakistani military keeps a firm hold of its nuclear weapons.
Washington also wants to see an end to the long era of enmity and a turnaround of Pakistans troubled bilateral relationship with India. For the US, the maintenance of a strategic balance in the South Asian region takes a backseat to Pakistans purported support for terrorism against neighbours. The US and other major international players dont buy Pakistans narrow India-centric worldview.
For Pakistan, turning the ominous signs of the US-India embrace into an opportunity to normalise the relationship with India would improve Pakistans international standing. It would also resolve many domestic challenges that have impeded the countrys progress.
In conclusion, most foreign policy relationships in the modern era are of a transactional nature. Gone are days of permanent allies and friends. In this respect, the US-Pakistan relationship is better placed. The relationship can still be reshaped beyond just the aid and terrorism.
Instead of focusing on bringing Pakistan to heel, the US can incentivise Pakistan by offering additional trade and investment opportunities in return for its cooperation. With the historical baggage removed, it would be Pakistans choice to accept or reject the less expansive but more realistic contours of the relationship.
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