The canvas of foreign policy is as vast as one’s mind may stretch it. Forever studded with possibilities, it encompasses multiple options, directions, moves, counter-moves, successes, and challenges. At its apex, it is an undertaking for finding a way forward in the midst of conflict and contradictions.
That canvass was never more daunting for Pakistan than in the present times. On the one hand, it is geared to correcting the inherent negativity of perceptions which has been erroneously created about Pakistan and, on the other hand, it is battling the impediments which are being raised in the way of achieving peace within and around us. From being accused of harbouring terrorism to Pakistan becoming a key player in forging peace in a war-ravaged Afghanistan, it has been a long and arduous journey that continues unabated.
There have been successes which stand us proud among the comity of nations, but there also have been setbacks which we have continued to rue. Failure to build a stable, productive, and sustainable relationship with the US effectively falls into the latter domain. It has been a story of perpetual ups and downs, with the downs outnumbering the former by a fair margin.
At the beginning of its journey as an independent country back in 1947, Pakistan had a vast repertoire of tempting possibilities spread before it. Being located in South Asia linking many corridors of connectivity, its first priority should have been to establish close relations with its neighbouring and near-neighbouring countries, the former Soviet Union being one of the key prospects. In spite of the fact that Pakistan received positive overtures from it early on, we strangely decided to forsake that option and shake hands with the US across thousands of turbulent miles. Thus began a story of uncertainties which has plagued us throughout the momentous years of our independence. The history of our partnership is vast as is the history of pain that we suffered at the hands of a country we are still attached with as a non-NATO ally, though only as a cosmetic appendage.
Having signed the Mutual Defence Assistance Agreement with the U.S. in 1954 to moving on to becoming partners in the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO-1954) and Baghdad Pact (later CENTO-1955) to initialling the Pakistan-US Agreement on Cooperation (1955), we must have thought we were scaling the moon. But we forgot to understand that all these promises of support were underlined with a condition that Pakistan would assist the US and allies’ effort to defeat communism – this when we had two leading proponents of the philosophy located in our region, one a next-door neighbour and the other in near neighbourhood. That is when the original policy came across as a mind-blowing aberration but, by then, it was way too late to be corrected. As a matter of fact, we kept sinking deeper into the malaise, thus jeopardising our cardinal interests and our security prospects.
In the process, Pakistan got deeply involved in various US misadventures starting with leasing it a base to fly spy missions from its territory to keep a watch on the former Soviet Union. When one such flight was downed, Pakistan almost had a war at hand which was thankfully averted before sliding into a major conflagration. But it kept hurting for a long time.
In spite of being a partner in major agreements, Pakistan was periodically subjected to crippling sanctions and other punitive measures for its “errant” behaviour. Starting with the Pressler Amendment in 1990 which banned major military and economic aid to Pakistan to imposing sanctions under the Glenn Amendment in 1998 and the infamous Kerry-Lugar Bill in 2009 restricting payments to Pakistan, there have been a spate of initiatives by the US which gravely dented the prospect of the bilateral relations growing to a level of trust and health. Then the Raymond Davis episode that resulted in the death of two Pakistanis, the operation to take out Osama bin Laden in 2011, and the dastardly attack on the Salala post killing 24 Pakistani soldiers leading to the halting of NATO supplies and vacation of Shamsi airbase were substantive events which further jolted an already shaky relationship.
Accompanying all this were developments in the strategic domain which further dented the requisite trust needed to maintain productive relations. In spite of being bound in defence agreements, the US failed to help Pakistan in combating key challenges emanating from India which included two major wars in 1965 and 1971 and a localised conflict at Kargil. The war of 1971 resulted in the dismemberment of the country with the former East Pakistan announcing independence riding the bandwagon of a criminally-planned and dastardly intervention by India. Gradually, the US espoused India as its key ally as part of its “contain China” policy and Pakistan was left to tend to its wounds.
The harrowing treatment meted out to Pakistan in the aftermath of the support it extended in the US misadventures in Afghanistan has no precedence. After the exit of the former Soviet Union from Afghanistan had been made possible with the support extended by Pakistan, it was left gasping to deal with the “freedom fighters” who had been specially recruited to participate in the war. That resulted in becoming an existential challenge as some of the soldiers nurtured to fight an enemy turned their guns on Pakistan. Thus began a phase of internal strife and terrorism that lasted 10 years with Pakistan losing 75,000 people and over a hundred billion dollars in overcoming the massive upsurge. The second involvement in Afghanistan by Pakistan on its behest resulted in its leadership being referred to as “liars and cheats” by the US President. Ironically, it was the same Pakistan that was later requested to arrange a huddle with the Taliban to sign a deal to exit a war that the US had effectively lost.
The worst aspect has been the “do more” mantra which was always looming, casting an ever-lengthening shadow on US-Pakistan relations. The absolute absence of trust and a near vicarious disregard for the core interests of a country that was dubbed an ally gravely dented a relationship and stunted its growth to health. The underlying objective was always to treat Pakistan as a “client state” rather than an ally and making it do the dirty work that others would refuse to touch.
The story does not end there. Though Pakistan was the country that played a pioneering role in facilitating the initial contact between the US and China back in 1971, it was later subjected to immense pressure to review its relations with its neighbour and go slow on the development of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – the flagship project of economic collaboration between the two countries – which the US considered a challenge to its leadership position. Having been bitten a few times, Pakistan undertook a broad review of its foreign policy under the leadership of Prime Minister Imran Khan which was redesigned to focus on preserving and promoting core national economic and strategic interests. That is when it refused to succumb to the US pressure and bluntly said no to altering the nature or downgrading the quality of its relations with China. This started the initial tremors in the bilateral equation which were to transform into full-blooded earthquake that is still jolting US-Pakistan relations.
While Pakistan’s relations with China have entered a special strategic phase and its relations with Russia are consistently improving, its partnership with the US is on a downward trajectory. Pakistan has repeatedly made clear that it wants to maintain relations with the US that would be to the mutual benefit of the two countries, but it will not sacrifice its bond with any other country simply to satisfy the US appetite for pressuring it into submission by compromising its cardinal interests. Pakistan is finally asserting its independence and successfully resisting undue coercion for it to change course.
The unceremonious and hastily-planned exit from Afghanistan leaving the ground clear for the Taliban to charge for a takeover of the country adds another sordid chapter in the history of wars that the US has lost in the recent past. Although it was Pakistan again which arranged its huddle with the Taliban to sign the agreement in February 2020, it refused a collective demand from the regional countries to go for an orderly retreat. Instead, it just focused on pulling out its soldiers and the military hardware leaving the Afghan army to defend the country against an ascendant Taliban who, after a series of lightening advances, are virtually knocking on the gates of Kabul. This has put the entire region in a flux as Pakistan spearheads the effort to forge a broad understanding between the adversaries for peace to return to a war-ravaged country. But its position has been much weakened because of a self-serving exit by the US, leaving the arena open for the Taliban to strike.
From a delusional involvement with the US at the cost of its position and relevance in the region where it belonged through instances of being deceived and deserted in times of deep crises, Pakistan has perpetually suffered because of a relationship that was always bitten by an absence of trust. That is where the two countries stand at this juncture. Pakistan is gradually finding its footprints in the region as it should have done a long time ago, but it remains open to developing relations with the US where the interests of the two countries would converge. It is no longer willing to be the “client state” that the US wanted it to be, getting involved in conflicts which need to be avoided. It is firm in its commitments to its partners, most notably China, and would not falter in its resolve to develop these relations further which will not only be beneficial for the two countries, but for the entire region as a corridor for advanced connectivity and progress.
With the bilateral relations gasping for breath, Pakistan is no longer interested in fighting wars which it need not have. On the contrary, it would spearhead the fight for attaining peace with renewed vigour and commitment– within its borders, throughout the region and beyond.
Raoof Hasan is the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister of Pakistan on information, a political and security strategist, and the founder of the Regional Peace Institute.