New Delhi: The US and Pakistan are looking to give their relationship a fresh lease of life as they cosy up ahead of Washington’s deadline to fully withdraw troops from neighbouring Afghanistan.
New Delhi believes Islamabad is seeking to “hit the reset button” in its ties with Washington and hoping the Biden administration will reopen the aid channel, especially on the military-to-military front.
The desire in Islamabad, India understands, is to go back to the days when Washington’s Af-Pak policy was the “fulcrum” of the relationship between the US and Pakistan, top sources told ThePrint.
In the past two days, the National Security Advisers of the US and Pakistan, Jake Sullivan and Moeed Yusuf, respectively, met in Geneva, while US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin held a phone call with Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, causing India to sit up and take notice of the developments.
Last week, Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi visited the US in an effort to establish a broad-based and strategic partnership between Islamabad and Washington DC. In March, Prime Minister Imran Khan appointed Qureshi as the chair of a committee tasked with formulating a new strategy on ties with the US under the Biden administration.
Meanwhile, NSA Yusuf reportedly handed over a blueprint to the US that seeks a “paradigm shift” in bilateral ties.
According to the sources, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar will touch upon this issue during his ongoing five-day visit to the US where he is to discuss matters related to counter-terrorism measures with officials in the Biden administration.
Sources in the Pakistan government told ThePrint there are “still a lot of challenges and diversions in the thinking” of both countries. However, the recent talks indicate a “good start” and will enable both sides to keep the ties in a “manageable state”, they added.
The US has announced that it will leave Afghanistan by 11 September 2021, marking the 20th anniversary of the twin tower attacks.
Military aid, FATF
Once an ally of the US as it set out to rout the al Qaeda in the wake of 9/11, Pakistan fell out of favour with Washington over its stand and actions on terrorism.
The first strains emerged as the US’ hunt for al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, the 9/11 mastermind, brought its military to Abbottabad, where the terrorist leader had been holed up, in 2011.
The tensions notwithstanding, Pakistan stayed for years a major recipient of US foreign aid, particularly in the military realm, until the Donald Trump administration came in and cut it substantially.
Under the US National Defense Authorization Act, Pakistan received massive funds under various heads — Coalition Support Fund (CSF), Pakistan Counterinsurgency Fund (PCF), Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and International Military Education and Training (IMET), among others — for decades.
Under Trump, as the talks between the US and the Taliban headed for the signing of a peace deal, the former resumed the IMET programme in January 2020. The peace deal with the Taliban was signed the following month.
Sources said the phone call between Austin and Bajwa aimed to take aid back to the level it was during the first tenure of the Barack Obama administration, when Biden was Vice-President.
According to the sources, the role being played by Pakistan in facilitating the talks between the US and the Taliban will also enable Islamabad to come out of the scanner of the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF).
The FATF Plenary, its highest decision-making body, will be meeting from 21-25 June, where it will take a call on whether to keep Pakistan out of the terror financing watchdog’s grey list. During its last meeting in February 2021, the FATF Plenary gave Pakistan time till June 2021 to meet all the parameters on issues related to terror financing.
Meanwhile, the US, sources said, will now lean more towards Pakistan since Washington’s plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, which will end the two-decade-long conflict, has not gone the way it was planned.
Biden’s decision to hold a meeting with all stakeholders in Turkey last month, in a bid to fast-track an agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, could not fructify, reportedly over the Taliban’s non-participation.
Ayesha Siddiqa, a renowned Pakistani political and defence analyst, said it will be an “uphill struggle” for Pakistan to mend ties with the US, pointing out that the relationship started plummeting in 2011, when bin Laden was killed in the American raid.
“The US will need Pakistan even after it leaves Afghanistan for counter-terrorism efforts and other things so this relationship will continue, although it may not be business as usual. Pakistan is well aware that it wants the US and it also wouldn’t want to lose China,” added Siddiqa, author of ‘Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy’.
Sharat Sabharwal, former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan, said: “It is true that the US is upset that the Turkey meeting has not yet taken place. Meanwhile, the Taliban is now resorting to high-level of violence. Pakistan is under pressure to get something meaningful done. They are indeed planning to take the relationship beyond, but the US is not in a hurry.”
Sabharwal added that the Americans will first watch how Pakistan acts on the peace talks, and whether they are able to take effective counter-terrorism measures before mending ties with them. Even then, Sabharwal said, the US will not behave the same way with Pakistan as it used to earlier since Washington is now closer to New Delhi, with Quad and Indo-Pacific strategic initiatives.
“Washington continues to view Pakistan through an Afghanistan lens, and especially as it carries out its final withdrawal. From the US side, the agenda priorities with Pakistan are getting Islamabad to push the Taliban to reduce violence and stay in negotiations with the Afghan state, and exploring prospects for post-withdrawal bilateral cooperation,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Washington-based think tank Wilson Center.
Washington, Kugelman added, is keen to retain a narrowly focused relationship even as Islamabad increasingly pushes for a more broad-based partnership that goes beyond security.
“The US isn’t ready for this, at least not in the near term. This isn’t to say the US is uninterested in scaling up trade and investment ties with Pakistan. It’s just that for Washington that’s not the front burner priority that Islamabad wants it to be,” he said.
Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai said last week that Pakistan is using the Taliban to further its own agenda and wants to assert its strategic influence in Afghanistan through them.
“Don’t forget, Pakistan is also eyeing major benefits as it makes way for the Americans for a safe exit from Afghanistan by obtaining modern arms and other such items from the war,” added Siddiqa.
Siddiqa said while FATF is definitely an aspect for which Pakistan is holding such hectic talks with its American counterparts, it wants to take ties back to where they used to be under Obama or even before that.
Earlier this year, the Pakistan Navy held its seventh biennial drill — Aman — in which the navies of 45 countries, including that of the US, UK and China, participated.