Configuring the Next Chapter in Pak-US Relations

Against a backdrop of recent developments in the Pak-US relationship, including a reworked US policy on South Asia, Jinnah Institute turned to a panel of foreign policy experts to solicit their opinion on the bilateral and regional state of play, and to assess prospects for strategic convergences in the coming months.


Senator Sherry Rehman, Jinnah Institute President & Former Ambassador to the US

As Secretary Tillerson heads to the region, both Islamabad and Washington have a renewed opportunity to size up each other’s resolve, identify new areas of cooperation, reassess perennial issues, and calibrate upcoming challenges. But there is no getting away from the fact that the bandwidth of bilateral convergence remains overshadowed by strategic gaps. Smarter policy for Washington would be to move away from deepening the battle of the binaries South Asia has fallen into. Promoting a higher involvement of India in Afghanistan will only worsen the historic strategic rivalries playing out in the region. The US has long sought to stabilise South Asia, especially in difficult times, so now would be a good time to embed metrics for peace in the region into a broader, more balanced equation. Afghan instability is the worst end goal for Pakistan and all players know that. Enhancing existing strategic fault lines between two nuclear powers that have fought four wars is not a good idea. Secretary Tillerson’s statement on Pakistan’s legitimate worries on its two borders reflects a mature grip on the evolving strategic situation. I hope he is able to take positive steps in partnership with leaders in the region to create a more enduring framework for stability and peace.

moeed yusuf

Moeed Yusuf, Associate Vice President Asia Centre at USIP

The Pak-US relationship seemed to be on the brink after US President Trump unveiled his administration’s new Afghanistan policy. Recent developments suggest that neither side is keen to derail the relationship completely; even if it is increasingly evident that ​each side’s preferred endgame in Afghanistan is unacceptable to the other. As Secretary Tillerson heads to the region, Pakistan is likely to continue to signal its preference for a political approach that seeks to accommodate the Taliban sooner rather than later. It will also press for a bilateral relationship that stands on its own merits, but this is unlikely to fly in Washington. At the same time, the aura of unpredictability around US foreign policy in general is likely to make decision-makers in Pakistan nervous. It has led some to argue for concessions to the US but others see a need for Pakistan to proactively plan for a minus-US scenario. Understandably, US interests in the region will continue to be dictated by what goes down on the other side of Pakistan’s western border. Therefore while the upcoming visit of the Secretary of State offers an opportunity for both sides to restate their positions, lofty expectations of a grand reset are unadvisable.

Salman Bashir

Salman Bashir, Former Foreign Secretary and High Commissioner to New Delhi

Seventy long years of partnership between Pakistan and the United States should provide a clue to the future trajectory of bilateral relations. The US was the sheet anchor for global stability, rocked often by stratospheric disturbances; Pakistan the proven partner in South and Central Asia. Both were able to identify mutual interests and cooperate with an intensity that was rare for nations, even within the western alliance system. Today, our interests converge with those of the US in bringing to closure a saga of death and devastation in Afghanistan. The ability of the US to manufacture peace and stability in Afghanistan is critical to Pakistan’s national interests – hence, the need to work closely together.  The modality of a standing consult/coordinate Mil-Intel mechanism could prove invaluable in neutralising violent elements inimical to regional security. But some obvious pitfalls should be avoided: Pak-US, Sino-US and Indo-US relations all have their own intrinsic worth and should not be perceived as zero-sum.  In the preceding weeks, some constructive signaling has created much-needed space for constructive engagement, and the upcoming visits of Secretaries Tillerson and Mattis should help identify further avenues for cooperation. Pakistan and the US need to be mindful of each other’s cultural sensitivities, and here the baseline should be one of mutual respect. A word of caution to the US: do not rake-in India or China in your relations with Pakistan. Indo-US and Pak-China strategic partnerships are indicative of the strength of their bilateral relations. However, the US-China partnership, or the G-2, denotes the future of the world. In an interdependent world, a multiplicity of partnerships especially in the economic domain is a win-win for all.

Rabia Akhtar

Rabia Akhtar, Director Centre for Security, Strategy & Policy Research, University of Lahore

The Pak-US relationship is living up to its reputation of that of a high-speed rollercoaster. But Islamabad needs to realise it is in the driving seat. President Trump’s South Asia policy has not only recast Pakistan as a spoiler that harbors terrorists, but has also shifted away the blame of US military failures in Afghanistan onto Pakistan. In short, America’s new South Asia policy has naturally angered Pakistan. But anger is not a strategy, and strategise Pakistan must. The threat of unilateral strikes inside Pakistan on alleged militant targets, sanctions against Pakistani individuals and entities, a reduction or cut-off of US economic and military aid, coupled with the challenge of India’s increased presence in Afghanistan endorsed by the US all loom large. In light of this, proactive engagement with the US is the approach that Pakistan should pursue. But while we are at it, we also needs to develop clear redlines – something we have historically only done against India – and communicate them well too. That will require an attitude. Pakistan’s redlines against the US should include zero tolerance for US drone operations inside Pakistani territory, with shoot on sight procedures in place upon violation of Pakistani airspace. In Afghanistan, perhaps the US can learn from Pakistan’s own counterterrorism experiences to help it achieve its military objectives. That offer from Pakistan should be on the table. On the eve of Secretary Tillerson’s visit to Pakistan, one can only hope that our attitude and strategy find a spine.

Zahid Hussain 2

Zahid Hussain, Journalist & Senior Fellow Jinnah Institute

Notwithstanding the recent thaw, relations between Pakistan and the United States remain icy. Secretary Tillerson’s visit to Islamabad this week is unlikely to bring with it a dramatic change in relations between the two estranged allies. President Trump’s words of appreciation over Pakistan’s successful operation that recovered a Canadian-American couple and their children have not removed fundamental sources of tension between them. There is no indication that the Secretary of State will be coming with a new proposal to help alleviate Islamabad’s concerns over Trump administration’s recently announced South Asia policy. The recent statement by US PR to the UN Nikki Haley calling on India to “keep an eye” on Pakistan has reinforced Islamabad’s concerns over the growing nexus between Washington and New Delhi. It is also evident that there will be increased US pressure on Pakistan to take tangible action against the Haqqani Network and other militant groups allegedly operating from their bases in Pakistan. The problem is that Pakistan is still seen as source of problem in Afghanistan than part of the solution. Nonetheless, it is imperative for us to maintain our engagement with the United States.