US-Pakistan Rapprochement: How India Should Maneuver its Equations?

 By Namita Barthwal
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On 14 October 2022, President Joe Biden, in a private Democratic Party reception, defined Pakistan as “one of the most dangerous nations in the world” with “nuclear weapons without any cohesion”. The statements created a political furore in Pakistan and raised doubts about the reconciliation process with the US.

In early October 2022, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, before the end of his six-year tenure in November 2022, met US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin and the National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, respectively, in his week-long visit to the US. He had discussed critical mutual defence interests and raised concerns about Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’s infiltration and rising extremism in Pakistan, including attacks by the Islamic State Khorasan on security officials.

The official visits and meetings from both sides and the long-awaited appointment of the US Ambassador to Pakistan have been assessed as US and Pakistan’s continued efforts to mend their relations. For many analysts, the meetings of General Bajwa signify reconciliation between both countries after the debacle of America’s Afghanistan policy. The success of his efforts to revive ties with America might ensure Pakistan’s survival amidst a deep economic crisis. There is a possibility that grooming the relationship with the US will help Pakistan to secure a timely release of monetary assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and save the country from being listed by the Financial Action Task Force. In the recent assessment, Pakistan has been listed among the countries that are implementing FATF standards which, along with the possible support of the US, brightens the country’s chances to exit the anti-terror “FATF grey list”. The release from the Grey list will eventually help Pakistan receive financial aid from institutions like IMF, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

US and Pakistan’s Strategic Calculations

General Bajwa, the de facto authority of Pakistan’s domestic and international politics, has always reckoned the alliance with the US as something essential to maintain because, in return for offering its geostrategic locations to the US for advancing its interests in the region, Pakistan has received American financial and defence assistance. The military hardware and F-16 fighter jets provided by the US continue to help Pakistan to keep up with India’s military might. 27 February 2019 dogfight between the air forces of Pakistan and India clearly illustrated how F-16 fighter jets were central to Pakistan’s defences.

The US also has several reasons to patch up the strategic relationship, often described as a “Bad Marriage”. The prominent reason is to draw Pakistan away from China. In the talks of refurbishing the ties, US officials have demanded transparency in China-Pakistan Economic Corridor projects and raised concerns over the presence of China’s security personnel in the country. Another critical reason is to keep an eye on the ‘anti-American’ Taliban’s regime in Afghanistan to ensure that the country would never again serves as a haven for terrorist attacks on the US. For this purpose, the US needs intelligence cooperation with Pakistan.

The other reasons are discussed in the “US Re-Engagement with Pakistan: Ideas for Reviving an Important Relationship” report by the Pakistani Study Group. The group of a dozen scholars of South Asian affairs, including scholars and former US ambassadors to Pakistan Ryan Crocker, Cameron Munter and Robin Raphel, along with Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador in Washington, acknowledged that the US has resentment against Pakistan but advised not to ignore or isolate the country for three significant reasons: (1) its population size; (2) a location that involves three key regions — South Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East — and has borders with China and Iran and is close to Russia; (3) possession of nuclear weapons. The group recommended a “modest pragmatic” approach vis-à-vis Pakistan.

After the ousting of PM Imran Khan, the Biden Administration has given ample signs that it is re-looking at Pakistan as its critical partner with shared interests and values. General Bajwa received the honour cordon, reserved for the US President and Vice-President, at US Defense Department Headquarters. The catastrophic floods in Pakistan have paced the process of mending the relationship. The US has provided USD 63 million in aid, and many senior officials have visited Pakistan amid the natural calamity. The most significant indication is the revival of the F-16 programme – a barometer for analysts to assess the closeness of the two countries for years.

US-Pakistan Relations: 2016- Early 2022

The Trump administration exacerbated the growing contumely from the White House for Pakistan. Under Trump’s presidency, a seventy-year-old asymmetrical relationship that involved deep links between the two countries in politics, economics and defence was suddenly being questioned in both the US and Pakistan. The unending war in Afghanistan tested President Trump and the US military’s patience, particularly NSA Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who fervently believed that the only reason the Taliban remained undefeated was that they had sanctuary in the borderlands in Pakistan. The Haqqani Network, identified by the US forces as the main instigators of high-profile attacks in Kabul, is believed to be headquartered in Kurram Agency. Meanwhile, the Taliban leadership, known as the Quetta Shura, was using Baluchistan and Karachi as bases.

The financial assistance given to Pakistan plummeted during the Trump Administration. Under the leadership of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, Pakistan also shifted its alliance and grew closer to China. When Joe Biden assumed office, the Taliban takeover happened, and PM Imran Khan openly supported the Taliban regime. He referred Taliban’s takeover as Afghans having broken the “shackles of slavery”. The former Prime Minister visited Moscow in the early days of the Russia-Ukraine war, increasing Washington’s discontent with him. The tension became more evident when he hurled accusations at the US for its alleged involvement in the ouster of his government.

America’s De-hyphenated Foreign Policy

In international diplomacy, de-hyphenation means an independent rapport – with two countries having an adversarial relationship. Washington explicitly follows the de-hyphenation policy vis-à-vis India and Pakistan. Since the second term of the Bush administration, the US has advocated de-hyphenation, connoting that its relation with India stands independent rather than affected by its relation with Pakistan.

With the rise of China’s assertiveness at the turn of the 21st century, the US is increasingly turning to India as a Net Security Provider in the Indo-Pacific. In the growing scenario where China emerges as the ‘only competitor’, many American commentators and retired diplomats have concluded that Pakistan figures nowhere in the US scheme in the long run. Nevertheless, the US wants to maintain the Balance of Power in South Asia. Also, the nature of the US-Pakistan relationship is transactional, and there must be a quid pro quo vis-à-vis US security interests. It can be argued that the USD 450 million F-16 deal for Pakistan is barter for using their strategic space, i.e., for providing help to the US in killing Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The re-iteration of the de-hyphenation policy of the US could be traced to US Ambassador Blome’s visit to Pakistan-Occupied Jammu and Kashmir and his reference to it as “Azad Jammu and Kashmir”. India protested against the visit and use of “Azad Jammu and Kashmir” to identify the disputed land. Washington did recognise that it had upset New Delhi. Still, it would not antagonise the US in India’s strategic calculation because, at present, China is the most significant geopolitical challenge for both countries and all other matters are secondary. Also, the US is not changing its neutral position on Jammu and Kashmir, no matter how close it may be with India or Pakistan. It prefers that both countries resolve the issue bilaterally.

India’s Way Forward

India’s strategic significance for the US has become broad and robust because of its critical role in stabilising the Indo-Pacific. In the National Security Strategy (2022), the US has defined India – as a “major defence partner” to effectively compete with China and achieve a shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific. Therefore, India should not be rattled by the developments in the US-Pakistan relationship, which will still take considerable time to rebuild itself. Though India protested against the US F-16 maintenance package to Pakistan, the concerns are primarily tactical because, irrespective of what the US says, the State Department’s declassified documents have revealed that F-16s can only be used against India. Moreover, any additional capacity building of Pakistan goes against the security interest of India.

Considering the possibility of the success of the rapprochement process between the US-Pakistan, India should bring forward constructive diplomacy vis-à-vis Pakistan with the help of the US. Since India plays a crucial role in the Indo-Pacific and is a member of QUAD to contain China’s expansionism, it is, somehow, the US’ responsibility to ease India’s western front by protecting the country from Pakistan’s sponsored terrorism. Pressure on Pakistan not to use terrorism against India could help both countries to initiate constructive talks that will eventually improve regional cooperation and reduce China’s influence in the region.

Conclusion

Events, such as the appointment of the US Ambassador to Pakistan, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s meeting with the US President, General Bajwa’s visit, the revival F-16 programme and aid for floods, depict that despite President Biden’s unscathed remarks, the process of rebuilding the transactional relations between the US and Pakistan will remain unaffected. However, the efforts of General Bajwa can reverse as his tenure is ending, and the new Army leadership might not find maintaining relations with the US helpful. Also, on Ex-PM Imran Khan, Pakistan’s military is divided, raising the possibility of his return to power. Hence, India should focus on Pakistan’s new internal instabilities, including the weakening dominance of Pakistan’s Army over the polity, before concluding the new development in US-Pakistan relations.

Bibliography

Farrow, R. (2018). War on Peace. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Nawaz, S. (2019). The Battle for Pakistan: The Bitter US Friendship and a Tough Neighbourhood. Penguin Books.