Recent weeklong visits by Pakistan’s foreign minister, Bilawal Bhutto and army chief, General Bajwa, to Washington, signal a resetting of Pakistan ties, believed by some to be a message to India. These were preceded by the sale of maintenance stores for US-delivered F-16s and followed by the US Ambassador to Islamabad visiting POK, which he referred to as Azad Kashmir. Past US ambassadors have used the same term for POK.
The US disregarded Indian objections to the provision of maintenance stores, claiming it was their responsibility to ensure the aircraft’s airworthiness. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken mentioned, “This is about sustaining an existing programme and not adding a new one. We have an obligation to do that.” He added that US relations with Pakistan are independent of ties with India. When put together US actions appear to project a picture of it wooing Pakistan. Two recent Pakistani initiatives possibly influenced the US.
The first being Pakistan opening its airspace for the US to target al-Zawahiri whose whereabouts were shared by the ISI. The second was Pakistan, in collaboration with the UK, supplying its ordnance factory-produced 122mm artillery ammunition to Ukraine. The ammunition was airlifted in 12 sorties spread over 15 days from Pakistan’s Nur Khan airbase by UK’s Globemaster aircraft. Pakistan-US relations deteriorated when Donald Trump decided enough was enough on Islamabad’s double game in Afghanistan. He stopped the release of coalition support funds, totalling USD 1.3 billion annually. Meanwhile, the US defence and intelligence establishment maintained its connectivity with Pak GHQ, aware that it needed them for multiple reasons, the most important being its strategic location bordering Central and West Asia, China, Iran and Afghanistan.
Hence, throughout the ups and downs of US-Pakistani diplomatic ties, relations between their defence establishments remained cordial. In 2018, the US blocked the International Military Education and Training Program for Pakistani officers only to restore it at the end of 2019, all during the presidency of Trump. Re-setting of ties gained pace with the ouster of Imran Khan. For the US, Pakistan’s cooperation is essential for monitoring Afghanistan, as relations with Iran and Russia remain tense, limiting options for use of airspace. Last week’s meeting between US officials and a Taliban delegation led by its intelligence chief in Qatar was possibly prompted by Pakistan. As Hussain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador and currently with the Hudson Institute stated, “Pakistan’s only relevance right now is its geographical location and the issue of terrorism, and only those Americans who are interested in this would take Pakistan seriously.”
The US has always been concerned about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. President Biden stated at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Reception last week, “what I think is maybe one of the most dangerous nations in the world: Pakistan. Nuclear weapons without any cohesion.” Military-to-military ties are also aimed at mitigating this concern. The US is also keen to draw Pakistan away from the clutches of China, especially with deteriorating USChina ties.
Pakistan remains China’s sole ally in South Asia. The US administration maintains closer contact with Pakistan’s army chief rather than its political leadership. The recent release of IMF funds was a consequence of Bajwa’s direct intervention with the US government. A possible reason for the army backing removal of Imran Khan was his anti-USA, pro-Russia and pro-China stance. Bajwa’s two comments during his address at Pakistan’s Military Academy in Kakul, appear intended to appease his American backers and are a fallout of his US visit. The first was his mention of peace with India. He stated, without naming India, “We must give peace a chance by developing a mechanism to resolve all our bilateral issues peacefully.”
This conveyed that Pakistan, adopting US advice, has taken the first step in peace overtures. India must be convinced to reciprocate. The second was his warning to Imran Khan when he mentioned, “the armed forces with the support of our citizens will never allow any country, group or force to politically or economically destabilise Pakistan.” Evidently, Imran has crossed the threshold of acceptability. The US also appears to be against his return. Within India, there is a perception that the US mending ties with Pakistan are blackmailing it into toeing its line on global issues.
This is backed by the logic that the Biden administration has yet to nominate a permanent ambassador to Delhi. Added to this is the regular needling of India on human rights and democracy issues by members of the US administration. Simultaneously, the US remains aware that without Indian support, its China and Indo-Pacific policies are doomed, Quad’s effectiveness is questionable, and imposed sanctions are unlikely to succeed. The reality is that the US will exploit Pakistan’s territorial advantage. Their relations will remain restricted in scope. Pakistan can never replace India as visualized by a few. The US will do no more than assisting with aid when Pakistan desperately needs it, as with the current floods and IMF loans.
It is unlikely to provide it with additional weaponry as, apart from objections from India, these would probably be technologically exploited by China. India is possibly the only country which has stared down China by refusing to accept any terms other than the restoration of the status quo along the LAC. Thus the US cannot ignore India despite its dislike for Indian foreign policies as also the fact that India refuses to bend and toe their line like its other allies. India may be different but remains reliable. Its growing power and global respect make it an ideal partner.
Hence, India-US ties will remain strong, despite differences in Ukraine. The recently released US National Security Strategy 2022 sums up US-India engagement. It states, “As India is the world’s largest democracy and a major defence partner, the United States and India will work together, bilaterally and multilaterally, to support our shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.” On the contrary, Pakistan, which was mentioned 19 times in the 2010 strategy was missing in this edition. It appears that the US is leading Pakistan down the garden path. Hence, the best course for India is to turn a blind eye to the so-called reset in Pakistan-US ties.