Pakistan, US taking steps to restore bilateral relations

But history will label this relationship as a ‘marriage of convenience,’ expert says

 Pakistan's then-prime minister Imran Khan speaks during an interview with Reuters in Islamabad, Pakistan June 4, 2021. (photo credit: Saiyna Bashir/REUTERS)
Pakistan's then-prime minister Imran Khan speaks during an interview with Reuters in Islamabad, Pakistan June 4, 2021.
(photo credit: Saiyna Bashir/REUTERS)

Diplomatic relations between Pakistan and the United States have been under an apparent freeze for the past two years, but it now appears that both sides are taking thoughtful steps to restore solid bilateral relations.  

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High-level military officials from both countries met together in Washington last week, while Derek Chollet, counselor of the US State Department, along with a delegation of senior US government officials, visited Islamabad February 16-17.

Chollet was accompanied by Clinton White, counselor of the United States Agency for International Development, and Elizabeth Horst, principal assistant secretary for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs at the State Department.

The visit, according to a statement issued by the US embassy and consulates in Pakistan on Friday, was meant to “highlight the importance of our bilateral partnership and reaffirm our countries’ shared goals.”

Chollet met with Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari to discuss strengthening the US-Pakistan bilateral partnership, including increasing economic cooperation and assisting Pakistan with its needs as it continues to recover and rebuild following the devastating 2022 floods that killed 1,739 people, and caused $14.9 billion in damage and $15.2 billion in economic losses. 

Supporters of the Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan during what they call 'a true freedom march' in Rawalpindi, Pakistan November 26, 2022 (credit: REUTERS/AKHTAR SOOMRO)Supporters of the Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan during what they call 'a true freedom march' in Rawalpindi, Pakistan November 26, 2022 (credit: REUTERS/AKHTAR SOOMRO)

In a meeting with Chief of Army Staff General Asim Munir, Chollet discussed security cooperation and counterterrorism efforts.

“The US and Pakistan partnership is broad-based and promotes economic cooperation, flood recovery and reconstruction, regional security, and people-to-people ties for Pakistanis and Americans,” Chollet tweeted Friday after the meeting.

The statement by the US diplomatic missions in Pakistan also said that the “US government is dedicated to expanding the full range of trade, security, education, people-to-people, climate and clean energy cooperation and ties between the Pakistani and American people to promote a more stable, secure and prosperous future for both our nations.”

Earlier on Friday, Ned Price, the US State Department spokesperson, told reporters that “Pakistan is a valued partner of the United States. It is valued across many realms.”

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Dr. Asad Majeed Khan said in a statement that “the frequent bilateral visits are a manifestation of the positive trajectory of the Pakistan-US relationship.”

The foreign secretary also expressed satisfaction with the second Pakistan-US Mid-Level Defense Dialogue held February 13-16, and the upcoming Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) Council meeting in Washington DC.

He emphasized the importance of sustained cooperation through institutionalized dialogues in trade and investment, energy, security, climate change and health. He also stressed the need to expand cooperation in the areas of agriculture, education, information technology, science and technology.

Conflict between the United States and Pakistan

Pakistan and the US were close allies during the US-led war on terror in Afghanistan. Pakistan also played an important role in the Doha Peace Agreement and the safe evacuation of US troops from Afghanistan.

But the US withdrawal from Afghanistan caused a chill in Pakistan-US relations.

The Biden administration blamed Islamabad for Washington's defeat, while Pakistan protested its being scapegoated for US policy failures in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the tension between the two countries further deepened when Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan repeatedly accused the United States of being involved in a conspiracy to remove him from power, though US authorities continuously denied this accusation.

However, in an unprecedented move, Khan recently said: “It was not a US conspiracy, but former army chief, General (Qamar Javed) Bajwa, conspired to overthrow the government.”

Khan made these remarks during an interview with the Voice of America last Saturday, followed by a separate televised address last Sunday.

During the interview, Khan acknowledged the importance of the US-Pakistan relationship to Pakistan's interests and noted that the US is an important trading partner. He appeared to distance himself from his public narrative that the US was part of a conspiracy to overthrow his government.

Replying to the host's question, Khan said: “International relations should not be based on personal egos. It should be based on the personal interest of the people of your country. So, the interest of the Pakistani people is to have good relations with the US, which, being a superpower, is our largest trade partner.”

Talking about the alleged US conspiracy for his removal, Khan said that “it was (in the) past, we have to move forward.”

However, Khan received a lot of criticism from opponents, for what is being considered another U-turn in his stance on the controversial “regime change” narrative. 

The Media Line spoke to some analysts regarding the recent steps taken to revive US-Pakistan relations, and whether it can be said that bilateral relations between the US and Pakistan are currently in a restoration phase.

Adrian Calamel, a New York-based Middle East expert and a former professor of Global and Middle Eastern History at the State University of New York's Finger Lakes Community College, does not believe that there is a permanent rapprochement between the US and Pakistan. 

“I cannot say there is a restoration phase in bilateral relations, especially since the US foreign policy seems to shift from one administration to the next,” he told The Medial Line. 

 “The US State Department and Secretary (of State Antony) Blinken believe almost every country, unless openly hostile, is a trusted ally, but the world does not work that way,” Calamel said. 

He says that the bilateral meetings between the two countries’ defense officials will not help measurably with regional security, but they “may lead to some limited drone strikes inside Afghanistan fed to Washington by Islamabad.”

“The Biden administration wants to exhibit that its ‘Over the Horizon’ approach to counterterrorism is not really an ‘Over the Rainbow’ (or war planning) policy after the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, and Pakistan does not want American operations on its soil,” Calamel added.

Adeeb Ul Zaman Safvi, a Karachi-based retired Navy captain and graduate of the US Naval War College, believes that “since the creation of Pakistan, the relations between the countries have never been on equal footing nor, shall we say, ‘quid pro quo.’”

“Yes, Pakistan was given the status of US front-line, non-NATO ally, yet was subject to sanctions. History will label this relationship as a ‘marriage of convenience,’” Safvi, a leading political and defense analyst, told The Media Line.

He disputes the fact that relations with the United States became strained during Imran Khan's tenure.

“For the first time in the country's history, an independent foreign policy was formed in which national interest was given priority over foreign interest. Diplomatic relations were established on a quid pro quo” basis, Safvi told The Media Line.

He claims that “despite denial from the US and its collaborators in Pakistan, an unfolding of events leading to the removal of the Khan-led government clearly show that Khan was removed at the behest of the US policies.”

Kamal Alam, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center, told The Media Line, that “the US-Pakistan relationship is primarily a military transactional relationship, no matter what kind of veneer of diplomatic or cultural and economic ties you cover it with.”

Alam further said that “Imran Khan's comments or subsequent U-turn (on US regime-change conspiracy) cannot change the fact that the only the time US presidents have ever visited Pakistan is when there is a military ruler in Islamabad.”

“As such, nothing has changed; the US relationship is not with Islamabad, but with its adjacent city Rawalpindi, where the Army’s General Headquarters is located,” according to Alam. “The visits from the State Department, Treasur, and other agencies are a sideshow dominated by the Department of Defense and Military General headquarters.”

Alam also told The Media Line that “Kabul has already blamed Pakistan for supporting drone strikes with US cooperation so it's business as usual for US-Pakistan ties. An energetic ambassador such as (Donald) Blome can, however, bring about more civilian cover and ties beyond just the security dependency.”

 Arif Rafiq, a New York-based, non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC who also chaired Vizier Consulting, LLC, a political risk advisory company focused on the Middle East and South Asia, told The Media Line that “the US-Pakistan relations are on the mend, but the future bilateral relationship will be limited in intensity and scope. It will fall short of a strategic partnership.”

Rafiq guesses that “financial assistance to Pakistan from Washington will also remain modest.”

He further told The Media Line: “The bitter legacy of US-Pakistan relations from the 9/11 period will endure. Also, the US desire to build a strategic partnership with India will strongly limit the possibility of meaningful military ties between Washington and Rawalpindi.”