The Hill

Is a US-Pakistan Reset Possible?

Research Fellow
Osama Bin Laden, the Saudi millionaire and fugitive leader of the terrorist group al Qaeda, explains why he has declared a "jihad" or holy war against the United States on August 20, 1998 from a cave hideout somewhere in Afghanistan.
Osama Bin Laden, the Saudi millionaire and fugitive leader of the terrorist group al Qaeda, explains why he has declared a "jihad" or holy war against the United States on August 20, 1998 from a cave hideout somewhere in Afghanistan.

As the Biden administration starts shaping its foreign policy, it has to deal with some complicated relationships. Few U.S. relationships are as complicated as the one with onetime ally and occasional frenemy, Pakistan, which is now closely aligned with China and is widely blamed for undermining the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan.

Voices sympathetic to Pakistan in Washington are advocating a reset of U.S.-Pakistan relations, setting aside the bitterness of the past. Their essential argument is that as a nuclear weapons power with a large army, which has been a friend of the United States in the past, Pakistan simply cannot be ignored.

The U.S. should, of course, not ignore Pakistan. But Americans should be wary of plans that draw the U.S. back into embracing Pakistan or depending on it. Pakistan is now China’s closest ally and its overtures to the U.S. are designed only to evade the consequences of its anti-American conduct.

The idea that there should be a new basis for U.S.-Pakistan relations is not new, but the latest calls for a ‘reset’ are based on that notion that it can somehow be achieved without a turnaround in Pakistan.

Hudson Institute’s Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador, had first called for abandoning the idea of a U.S.-Pakistan alliance, and a bilateral relationship based on “greater humility” and an awareness of for each side of “what it can and cannot get” in a 2013 Foreign Affairs article titled “Breaking up is not hard to do.”

The recent proposals for revisiting relations with Pakistan have come from three former officials who served during the Obama administration at a time when the United States poured billions of dollars into Pakistan in an attempt to wean it off its own strategic priorities. That effort ended only after Americans located Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town and killed him without first informing the Pakistanis out of fear that they might tip off the arch-terrorist.

This time, Richard Olson (who served as U.S. Ambassador from 2012 to 2015 and as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2015 to 2016), advocates a “right-sized” relationship with Pakistan in a paper published by the United States Institute for Peace.

Mr. Olson proposes moving away from emphasis on “military and intelligence aspects of cooperation” and a focus on “genuinely overlapping interests, especially economic and cultural ones.” He recognizes that “It is hard to imagine an Islamabad increasingly aligned with Beijing and still being close to Washington.”

The idea that the U.S. needs a new policy towards Pakistan has been repeated in an Atlantic Council paper co-authored by Shamila Chaudhary, former director for Pakistan and Afghanistan at the Obama National Security Council and S. Vali Nasr, former Senior Advisor to U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke (2009-2011).

Ms. Chaudhary and Mr. Nasr also emphasize economic and people-to-people relations, without acknowledging that these cannot be created by a U.S. administration. Businesses in Pakistan would have to buy more from the U.S. while finding enough American buyers for Pakistani products for trade volumes to expand.

The cultural and economic overlap between Pakistan and the United States is very limited. The right-sized U.S. relationship with Pakistan, shorn of military and intelligence ties, would be a rather minimalist one.

It is unlikely that — based on economics alone — Pakistan would deserve more attention from the U.S. than is given to, say, Morocco or Bangladesh. Even as an ally and major aid recipient, U.S. trade with Pakistan in goods and services never exceeded the current figure of $6.6 billion in a year. This level of bilateral trade is comparable to U.S.-Morocco trade in goods and services in 2020 and is hardly a trickle in the annual U.S. trade volume of $5 trillion.

Moreover, Morocco’s population is just 36 million compared to Pakistan’s population of 210 million. Bangladesh, which was once part of Pakistan, trades with the United States to the tune of $9 billion annually.

If the future Pakistan-relationship is to be determined by economic factors, Pakistan would have to up its game in being able to trade with the U.S. at levels much higher than what it has managed for 72 odd-years.

As for cultural relations, the Pakistani diaspora in the United States is smaller than many other diaspora communities and would have to find its own place in America’s melting pot. The State Department cannot advance Pakistani-Americans’ role within the U.S. nor can it create a market for Pakistan’s cultural products — movies, television shows, music, or books.

It is unlikely that most Americans will easily ignore Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism, without so much as an acknowledgement or apology from Islamabad of complicity in supporting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and a slew of attacks in India. Some of these Pakistan-backed acts of terror, including the 2008 Mumbai attacks resulted in the death of Americans.

The realization that Pakistan is no longer a U.S. ally seems now to be accepted wisdom in Washington. But those advocating a “reset” in relations under President Biden seem to be suggesting that a reset is possible without dealing with Pakistan’s own dysfunction — or consequences for past Pakistani conduct.

That suggestion might be good for policy papers, but it will not make for good policy.

Instead, the U.S. needs to figure out how to deal with a nuclear-armed Pakistan closely aligned with China, providing safe haven to myriad Islamist terrorist groups, and bent on causing mischief for U.S. allies Afghanistan and India.

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