Optics aside, Pakistan and US ties are still fragile
Prime Minister Imran Khan may seem to be United States (US) President Donald Trump’s new best friend, or at least one of his good friends, but, contrary to the optics, relations between the countries haven’t changed substantively.
First, the optics. And let’s begin with Exhibit A, the grin-and-grip in Davos earlier this month. Trump started the joint appearance with Khan — their third, thus far — by declaring Khan a “very good friend”, and proceeded to repeat his offer to mediate in Pakistan’s dispute with India over Kashmir.
But it went well for Khan. And there was more good news. Exhibit B: It became known shortly that the US was less willing to pursue the blacklisting of Pakistan by an international watchdog on counterterrorism than New Delhi had expected. More than a year ago, it was the Trump administration which had pushed the body, Paris-based Financial Action Task Force to put Pakistan on its grey-list of countries with suspect counterterrorism measures. Now, Pakistan is off the hook.
Exhibit C: The US resumed last December, an all-paid training programme for Pakistani military officials under the International Military Education and Training Programme that had been suspended.
What changed? Trump’s desperation to get out of Afghanistan, ending one of America’s unending wars as he had promised as a candidate. And Pakistan, as chief sponsor of the Taliban, was in a position to help. A White House visit was dangled as bait for the newly-elected Khan. And he bit, by delivering a key Taliban negotiator to the peace negotiations, Mullah Baradar.
So, should India worry? It shouldn’t. But it probably would, because it has tended to see Washington as a trophy to be won from, or lost to, Pakistan in recent years, resuming its struggle to accept the de-hyphenation of the US’s dealings with India and Pakistan.
Otherwise, there hasn’t been any substantive change in US-Pakistan relations. The freeze on nearly $2 billion in security aid to Pakistan remains in place; a third, for the sake of context and comparison, of the $6 billion International Monetary Fund package Pakistan accepted last year to deal with its external debt crisis. Pakistan has received more than $33 billion from the US in security aid since 2002, the year after the US invaded Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorists attacks. The suspension formalised a downturn in relations that started on the night of May 1, 2011, when US navy SEAL commandoes found and killed Osama bin Laden in a walled compound barely a mile from Pakistan’s elite military academy in Abbottabad.
US-Pakistan ties have still not recovered from that fatal blow to the most basic pillar of any relationship: Trust. Trump remembered and alluded to it as he blasted Pakistan’s “lies & deceit” in his now-famous January 1 tweet of 2018. “They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan,” he wrote. This abiding distrust afflicts the core of the relationship now, metastasising to every part and corner, rendering it beyond repair. This ship has sailed, as a long-time watcher of US-Pakistan ties has said of the dismal prospects of the ties.