The bilateral relations between Pakistan and the United States are, once again, at a critical conjuncture. As the exit of the US from Afghanistan, the end of an era would require Pakistan and the United States to re-evaluate their ties in geo-political and geoeconomics terms.
Moreover, this exit would provide the whole region a chance to reexamine its role on the global stage, depending on the outcome of the drawdown. Though there are concerns of civil war in Afghanistan and region going back to the late 1990s situation, the important thing to ponder is how regional countries are going to deal with that situation.
As Pakistan has shifted its focus to be more policy centered and towards geo-economics, it is, however, high time for Pakistan to introduce reforms that will enable the realization of the potential of this policy shift.
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Pakistan has been a ‘helpful and constructive partner’ of the United States in Afghanistan and beyond, therefore, both countries need to re-examine their bilateral ties along the lines of other areas of interest, other than security, such as climate change, cybersecurity, pandemic control, trade and investment, and technology.
Background of Pak-US Relations
The ties between Pakistan and the US have seen many ups and downs in the past seventy years. Touqir Hussain accurately associated the relationship between Pakistan and the US with the literary criticism of Shakespeare’s Hamlet where one is trying to find the answers to the same old complaints with zero results.
Going back to the early 1950s, right after the independence, Pakistan had to choose between then-two superpowers, the US and USSR. Pakistan had aligned itself with the United States and became part of its security alliance to counter the threat of communism in Asia. In the meanwhile, 1965 war resulted in the imposition of embargoes on Pakistan by the US.
Due to Pakistan’s proximity to Afghanistan, Pakistan had to get involved in Afghanistan with the US to secure the country against Soviet invasion. In return, Pakistan got security assistance from the US which was much needed from the 1960s onwards, which was significant for Pakistan to secure its eastern borders from Indian aggression.
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In the 1990s, the US cut off its aid and security assistance programs to Pakistan, in different years, due to Pakistan’s nuclear program. But after 9/11, Pakistan again became a frontline ally of the US against the ‘war on terror’.
In wake of the ‘war on terror’, Pakistan paid the enormous price of that alliance with the financial loss of US$150 billion and the human cost of more than 70,000 causalities, both civilians and armed forces, and around 550,000 Internally Displaced People (IDPs).
Pakistan’s shift to geoeconomics
The year 2021 has witnessed a drastic shift in the history of Pakistan. As of March 2021, Pakistan’s leadership has shifted Pakistan’s focus from geopolitical contestations to geo-economic cooperation. It is outlined that Pakistan will adopt a policy of economic security and economic diplomacy under a comprehensive security framework to enhance the country’s economic foothold in the world.
Pakistan’s leadership drew a vision for economic security, based on three core principles; connectivity, socio-economic uplift through development partnerships, and promoting peace within and beyond borders.
South Asia is one of the least connected regions in the world, so the idea behind connectivity is to integrate the region and promote peace and stability through creating reliance among states in the region. Regional connectivity will not only help in settling the regional disputes peacefully, but it will also assist states to tackle other significant problems such as issues of human security, climate change, food shortage, and water management issues.
Pakistan has played a significant role as a facilitator in the peaceful settlement of the Afghan conflict between the US and the Taliban. Beyond the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan’s vision of regional connectivity can provide a base for a peaceful and economically prosperous Afghan society.
Development partners: Reimagining the ties
It has been seven months since President Biden took charge at the White House, but there has not been any contact at the highest level between US President and Pakistani Prime Minster, to define the course of bilateral ties between two countries. However, the National Security Advisors (NSAs) of both states met in Geneva in May 2021 and agreed to enhance practical cooperation between Pakistan and the United States.
Unfortunately for the most part of history, the bilateral relations between Pakistan and the United States have been determined by Washington’s Cold War, China, or India’s policy. To reconnect with Pakistan, the foremost important step for the US leadership is to see Pakistan as a separate entity.
It is the right time for both countries to reimagine themselves as development partners, rather than driving the relations from a power dynamics perspective. Pakistan needs to focus more on trade when it comes to its relations with the United States, rather than sticking to the notion of getting assistance and aid. Pakistan has already increased its exports to the US, and exports to the US were the highest ever at US$4.14 billion in 2020.
Pakistan needs to show the seriousness of how the country is going to get rid of the vicious cycle of IMF loan programs and becoming economically independent. So that other countries, like the US, see Pakistan as suitable for expanding trade and investment.
Pakistan has already shown some serious efforts towards improving the investment ecosystem through structural and policy reforms. Pakistan has improved its ranking by 28 ranks/points on the World Bank’s ease of doing business index. Moreover, Pakistan’s position in World Bank’s starting a business indicator got also upgraded by 58 positions.
Areas Pakistan needs to focus on
For now, Pakistan needs to focus on the facilitation of intra-Afghan dialogue in the post-withdrawal period, so that Pakistan’s vision of South Asian connectivity with Central Asia can become a reality. It may also draw the attention of other countries including the US, China, Japan, and European nations to become part of regional developmental projects.
As the first phase of the flagship regional connectivity project, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), has been successfully completed, it is very important for Pakistan to attract other countries to invest in CPEC-related projects: especially at Special Economic Zones.
Linking Afghanistan with CPEC projects could make China and Pakistan key stakeholders for advocating peace and prosperity to Afghanistan. As in 1971, Pakistan became a bridge to start the diplomatic ties between China and the US, by arranging a secret visit of US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to Beijing.
Pakistan should try to set itself up as a mediator to allow two great powers, the US and China, to pursue their shared interests in the region. For that matter, Pakistan needs to enhance its capability to balance diplomatic ties between China and the US.
Dr. Moeed Yusuf, Pakistan’s NSA, already indicated that China never demanded Pakistan to cut off its ties with any other country, including the US, to remain a partner with China. If Pakistan can attract US investment to CPEC-related projects in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, it could be a huge achievement.