Michael Kugelman

Washington and Islamabad aren’t bound to be besties. But they can still find ways to work together.

If there’s one truism about U.S. foreign relations, it’s that America is highly selective about its best friends.

The United States boasts cordial relations with plenty of countries, and faces troubled ties with many more. There are precious few countries, however, that have enjoyed deep and lasting partnerships with Washington—what in American parlance is described as “strategic” or “special” relationships.

The few such relationships that do exist offer lessons for the U.S.-Pakistan partnership, which has experienced some very hard times over the last year. The main takeaway is that U.S.-Pakistan relations will not thrive anytime soon—but they will survive.

Washington’s closest allies include the United Kingdom and Australia, which often attract the “special” designation. Then there is the foolproof relationship with Israel. Washington’s treaty allies in East Asia, particularly Japan and South Korea, come to mind as well. Additionally, Washington has long described its relationship with Saudi Arabia as strategic. Finally, India may soon join this prestigious club. There is a growing bipartisan consensus in Washington that advocates for strategic partnership with New Delhi.

As prized as these partnerships are, none of them are problem-free. Washington’s relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia lapsed during the Obama administration. Its ties with the UK and Australia have taken modest tumbles under Trump. And for all the momentum in US-India relations, New Delhi is still allergic to the term “alliance.”

Still, these relationships offer the best insights into what drives America’s closest and most lasting friendships. They are characterized by shared interests (from combating terror to ensuring the supply of oil in the Mideast), similar values (such as democracy), common enemies (from ISIS to China), and—perhaps most importantly—deep levels of military cooperation ranging from basing agreements to joint operations. These relationships also enjoy deep repositories of goodwill and trust, and public opinion in each country is largely positive toward the other.

To be sure, not all of America’s top relationships feature all these criteria. American value systems are sharply at odds with those of the Saudis, for example, while India isn’t about to fight wars alongside the United States anytime soon. Still, they do embody many if not most of these criteria.

This all has two broad implications for U.S.-Pakistan relations moving forward.

First, it’s time to put to bed any notion of strategic partnership, Despite periods of strength during the Cold War, when the two banded together to target the Soviets, and more recently during the first few years of the Obama administration, when Washington sought to broaden the relationship to help secure Pakistani assistance in the war in Afghanistan, U.S.-Pakistan relations lack the core criteria to mature into a deep, lasting partnership.

Interests and objectives diverge in a big way, and in a range of contexts—from approaches to terrorism and endgames in Afghanistan to perceptions of India. The Trump administration’s South Asia strategy has only expanded these divergences. It has elevated to top priority the issue of Pakistan-based terrorists that target Americans in Afghanistan, while calling for a greater Indian role in Afghanistan. In fact, Washington’s growing partnership with New Delhi, which has full-throated support in the Trump White House, crystallizes the divergent interests in US-Pakistan relations. Indeed, the strategic imperatives that bring Americans and Indians together—cracking down on terrorists of all stripes and pushing back against the rise of China—drive Americans and Pakistanis apart.

Mutual trust is also in short supply in US-Pakistan relations. Indeed, after decades of two-way duplicity, recouping ample goodwill will be a tall order. America still smarts about how Pakistan equivocated about the development of its nuclear weapons program and used US security assistance for purposes other than those intended. Pakistan won’t soon forget the aggressive US spycraft tactics that made Raymond Davis and Shakil Afridi household and hated names. And Trump’s truculent and threatening tweets won’t make restoring trust any easier.

More broadly, public perceptions of the other are abysmal. The most recent Pew Research Center polling of Pakistan, from 2015, found that only a quarter of Pakistanis had a favorable view of America. And that was in the pre-Trump era.  Other surveys find that Americans are deeply mistrustful of Pakistan.

Additionally, U.S.-Pakistan military cooperation lacks depth. It wasn’t like  this. Decades ago, the two countries participated together in collective defense organizations (SEATO and CENTO). During the Cold War, the United States enjoyed the use of a listening post in Peshawar. More recently, Pakistan opened up its military bases for America to operate drones, and Washington provided billions in security assistance. Today, there is limited counterterrorism and intelligence cooperation, and Pakistan—at least for now—lets America use supply routes on its soil. But that’s about it.

And yet, this limited military cooperation hints at a second, more positive, implication that can be drawn from America’s closest relationships: US-Pakistan relations, warts and all, are destined to survive. They do have a few common enemies—al-Qaeda and ISIS, for instance—and share an interest in eliminating these common threats. Additionally, the relationship lacks trust, but it’s not as if rampant hostility is threatening to tear it apart. I oversaw a Track II dialogue on US-Pakistan relations last year, and tellingly not one of the several dozen participants advocated for a dismantling of the relationship. Beyond the bluster and bombast in each side’s public messaging, the relationship quietly retains a modest reservoir of goodwill—thanks, in great part, to seven decades of bilateral engagement.

So what’s in store for US-Pakistan relations in 2018? Speculation is rife that America will resort to harsh pressure tactics, raising the risk of Pakistani retaliations and a dangerous cycle of escalation. Ultimately, the trajectory of bilateral ties depends on how much risk America and Pakistan are willing to tolerate. The harder America pushes or provokes Pakistan, the greater the likelihood of Pakistani retaliations—such as shutting down supply lines and suspending all intelligence cooperation—that could imperil US war-fighting efforts in Afghanistan and its counterterrorism operations in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Meanwhile, the longer Pakistan resists American demands to crack down on or turn over terrorists, the greater the possibility it could be subjected to damaging punitive measures—from expanded drone strikes or unilateral raids to cutoffs in IMF loans.

Still, these are worst-case scenarios. In international relations—and even in today’s volatile and violent world—worst-case scenarios rarely materialize.

So in 2018, expect tense times for Washington and Islamabad. Given that it’s an election year for both countries, expect a fair amount of saber-rattling, which plays well for domestic audiences. At the same time, barring catastrophic crises, expect the two sides to lower their expectations, focus on what’s realistic, and quietly pursue some narrowly defined areas of cooperation—from curbing ISIS and countering the spread of IEDs to continuing to partner multilaterally in efforts to kick start a reconciliation process in Afghanistan.

Washington and Islamabad aren’t bound to be besties. But they can still find ways to work together, even if their relationship is put to the test in potentially unprecedented ways.

Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He can be reached at michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org or on Twitter @michaelkugelman


  1. As pointed out by author- same 2 factors, Terrorism & China define US relations with 2 south Asian states. in spite of being a victim of terrorism, Pakistan insists on using it as a strategic asset. It is becoming increasingly dependent on China that forcibly occupied Tibet & part of Kashmir, refused to accept verdict of international court on south China sea and used money power to take over a strategic port in Sri Lanka.

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