The Future Trajectory of
Pakistan and the United States have set the stage for a fresh impetus to their bilateral ties with pledges of greater engagement and economic cooperation. The icebreaker between Islamabad and Washington took place on May 23 in Geneva where national security advisors, Jake Sullivan of the US and Moeed Yusuf of Pakistan, met and, according to a statement jointly issued by them, “agreed to advance practical cooperation.” This was the first highest-level physical contact between the two countries since the Biden administration took office.
As per media reports, Dr Moeed Yusuf presented to his US counterpart Jake Sullivan with a “Pakistani plan” that envisages the future of Pakistan-US relationship. Breaking from the past practice, the plan seeks bilateral cooperation with the US that is not based on security and defence, but economy, trade and business. Bilateral relations were a major point on the agenda of the NSAs’ Geneva meeting, but other issues like India, Afghanistan and economic cooperation which keep affecting the ties were also discussed at length. Moeed Yusuf complained about lesser engagement with Pakistan by the new administration in its early days. His American counterpart claimed that it happened so because of the Covid-19 pandemic and a greater focus on internal issues. He promised more and sustained engagement.
The discussion was described by both sides as “positive”. More exchanges between the two sides are expected in near future. The US is, meanwhile, likely to extend economic cooperation and encourage investments in Pakistan. Similarly, increased cooperation for dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change is being expected by Islamabad. However, it is apparent from the meeting that the US desire for re-engagement is driven by its expediencies relating to the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan.
Washington wants the withdrawal to be completed in an orderly manner and, at the same time, hopes that Afghan warring groups would reach a political settlement before the completion of the withdrawal of troops. It, therefore, wants Pakistan to influence Taliban to agree to reduction in violence and taking the stalled Doha talks forward.
The Pakistan side conveyed its concerns about post-withdrawal Afghanistan, role of ‘spoilers’ and management of looming instability. For Islamabad, the nature of America’s role in Afghanistan after military withdrawal remains a crucial factor in shaping its Afghan strategy. Meanwhile, Pakistani policymakers seek a broad-based relationship with US after the completion of withdrawal. From this positive development, it is clear that Islamabad-Washington ties are undergoing a structural transformation after nearly two decades as Pakistan has attempted multiple times to broaden the ambit of bilateral relationship in recent months.
Previously, on April 28, Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Bajwa, spoke by telephone with Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, and discussed “matters of mutual interest, the regional security situation including the latest developments in the Afghan peace process, the [US troop] drawdown and bilateral cooperation in various fields,” according to a statement released by the army. The statement added that the secretary “pledged to further enhance bilateral relations between both the countries.”
The readout from the American side was a little more reserved. It said the two sides “reaffirmed the importance of the US-Pakistan relationship,” and that the secretary “expressed appreciation for Pakistan’s support for Afghanistan Peace Negotiations” before adding that the two sides “also discussed the drawdown in Afghanistan.”
It concluded by saying both sides “discussed the importance of regional stability and the desire for the United States and Pakistan to continue working together on shared goals and objectives in the region.” The American readout made no mention of enhancing bilateral relations.
This followed another conversation less than a month earlier, on March 21, between both officials in which “Secretary Austin reinforced the United States’ commitment to maintaining a strong bilateral defence relationship with Pakistan” as his country steps up the pace of withdrawal of all remaining 2,500 troops from Afghanistan, according to a readout issued by the US Defence Department. “Secretary Austin noted that he looks forward to further cooperation between the United States and Pakistan in areas of common interest,” the readout said in its concluding sentence.
Now, Dr Moeed Yousuf has met his US counterpart.
So, we have three telephone calls between the army chief and the US defence secretary in the last three months, and one face-to-face meeting between the NSAs of both countries. Accompanying this is a string of contacts between lower-level officials, as well as between the army chief and the American ambassador, all of them on record.
These are not frivolous contacts. Something is going on. The increasing pace of contacts between Pakistan and America, at such high levels, points to something significant that is being discussed. And the mention of bilateral relations in the readout from the American side in the call that took place immediately following the NSAs’ meeting in Geneva suggests some headway has been made by the Pakistani side.
Here is what we can say for sure. The Americans want Pakistan’s cooperation to ensure a smooth drawdown of troops to meet their deadline of Sept 11 of this year. After that, they want a stable Afghanistan where fighting does not flare up again. And they see Pakistan’s cooperation as critical in pursuit of both these goals. The Pakistani side, represented in this dialogue by a figure no less than the army chief himself, wants to “enhance bilateral ties” with the United States, which includes both security-related cooperation (diplomatic words for arms deals) and “other areas” which means economic aid. Hence the recent talk of a pivot to “geoeconomics” by the Pakistani government.
At a time when the Americans seem to be keeping the focus on Afghanistan, the Pakistani side is repeatedly underlining the “bilateral relationship”. They both have good reasons for their stance.
It appears that Pakistan is seeking a “paradigm shift” in its approach as far as ties with the US are concerned. Relationship between Pakistan and the US has often been seen as transactional as Islamabad for long relied on the country’s strategic location for leverage with Washington. However, there has been a consensus among the policymakers that Pakistan needs to move away from geo-strategic to geo-economics. At the recent Islamabad Security Dialogue held earlier this year, Pakistan’s civil and military leadership talked about that shift. In line with that approach, Prime Minister Imran Khan, in March, formed an Apex Committee that was tasked with formulating a new strategy on ties with the US under the Biden administration. The 14-member committee is headed by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and comprises ministers for finance, national food security, economic affairs, information technology, national security adviser, and PM’s aides on commerce, climate change, human resource development, power and investment.
The Terms of Reference of the committee solely focused on finding ways and means to seek cooperation between Pakistan and the United States in the fields of economy, trade, business, energy, technology and climate change.
This is seen as a clear departure from the earlier approach adopted by Pakistan and the US that largely focused on security cooperation with Afghanistan.
Sources said Moeed went to Geneva with a ‘blueprint’ envisaging Pakistan’s desire to broaden relationship with the US beyond security cooperation and Afghanistan.
Different ministries and departments made several proposals identifying potential areas of cooperation between Pakistan and the US. The Board of Investment (BoI) has proposed to attract more US foreign direct investment in Pakistan, especially through technology firms. The BoI also seeks US investment through special incentive regimes.
The Ministry of Commerce has suggested that an American-Pakistan Economic Zone be set up near Karachi port to allow reprocessing at concessional rates.
It has also proposed to enhance structured engagement through TIFA Ministerial Council and Business Opportunities Conference. Last time, the TIFA council meeting was held in May 2019. The US-Pakistan TIFA is the primary mechanism for both countries to discuss trade and investment issues and focus on ways to strengthen the bilateral relationship.
The United States continues to be Pakistan’s largest market for exports.
The Ministry of Commerce has also sought early finalisation of proposed legislation on Reconstruction Opportunity Zones, which had been promised by the Bush administration in return for Pakistan’s support to the US war in Afghanistan.
However, it is not clear if the Biden administration is receptive to the idea given its strategic priorities and close ties with India. Also, close ties between Pakistan and China can be a major factor that may desist the US seeking broader engagement with Pakistan.
It is believed that given the conversation, Pakistani authorities have had so far with the new US administration, Washington has linked future cooperation with Pakistan delivering on the Afghan peace process.
Unlike the past, this time the US does not want to give any incentives to Pakistan before the Afghan endgame. If there is a peace deal to the satisfaction of the US, there is a likelihood of Washington offering certain incentives to Islamabad on trade, economy and other issues.
The writer is serving in the Government of the Punjab.