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What is the future of relations between Pakistan and the United States after the ousting of Imran Khan? – Voices from South Asia

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On April 12, Shehbaz Sharif became Pakistan’s 23rd prime minister, after Imran Khan was ousted in the opposition vote of no confidence. Khan alleged his deportation resulted from a US-sponsored plot to punish him for pursuing an independent foreign policy with China and Russian allegations for which he has yet to provide any evidence. Khan’s decision to bring foreign policy into his domestic political campaign and use it as a tool for his political survival has exacerbated already strained US-Pakistan relations. Given these realities, Shehbaz Sharif will have a lot of work to do to repair US-Pakistani relations. The desire of the United States to cultivate good relations with the new Pakistani government while urging them to use their influence with the Taliban to meet the demands of the international community clearly shows that the scope of the bilateral relationship is narrow and focused on security. . Despite a new administration in Pakistan, US-Pakistani relations are likely to continue to focus on security, on issues such as nuclear proliferation, terrorism and Afghanistan. Yet, while the reach of the relationship is likely to remain close, it is in Pakistan’s interest to move towards resetting its ties with the United States.

US-Pakistani ties under Imran Khan

US-Pakistani relations were particularly turbulent under Imran Khan. In 2018, bilateral relations hit a low point when former US President Donald Trump cut security aid to Pakistan. However, the relationship improved somewhat after the Trump-Khan meeting at the White House in 2019. Subsequently, Pakistan played a crucial role in facilitating talks between Washington and the Taliban in Qatar, which opened the way for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan through the 2020 Doha Agreement. However, at the end of the year, the relationship fell apart when Pakistan received a cold shoulder from the newly elected Biden administration .

The desire of the United States to cultivate good relations with the new Pakistani government while urging them to use their influence with the Taliban to meet the demands of the international community clearly shows that the scope of bilateral relations is very narrow and centered on the security.

The Biden administration’s relationship with Pakistan began to deteriorate immediately after taking office, when Biden failed to call Khan, frustrating the prime minister and becoming a source of controversy. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 made Pakistan relevant once again for its foreign policy objectives, but primarily through the prism of counterterrorism and border security, which continues into the present. After exiting Afghanistan, Biden administrations are focused on strategic competition with China in increased Asia, keeping Pakistan at bay with its economic ties to China. Subsequently, Khan publicly accused the United States of pushing Pakistan into its so-called War on Terror, resulting in over 80,000 human lives and economic losses of approximately $123 billion. Growing animosity between the Biden administration and then-Prime Minister Khan made the United States a convenient scapegoat when Khan lost the vote of no confidence.

US-Pakistan relations under Sharif

Sharif not only inherited an economy on a ventilator, but inflation is in double digits, at over 10% this year. The new prime minister faces the daunting challenge of restoring ties with the United States, which has immense influence over the IMF and other financial institutions that control Pakistan’s ability to receive a bailout.

Aware of the gravity of this challenge, Sharif expressed a desire for friendly ties with the United States in his inaugural address to Parliament. The United States is Pakistan’s largest export, followed by China. Currently, Pakistan is on its 22nd International Monetary Fund (IMF) program, which the Shehbaz government is already in talks to restart, halted after the Khan government’s failure to implement some of the loan conditions. Similarly, Islamabad also needs Washington’s help to get off the Financial Action Task Force’s gray list for suspected money laundering and terrorist financing.

Sharif’s PML-N Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) coalition partners have always had good ties with President Biden and will likely continue to use his earlier connections in Washington DC to mend strained relations. Such efforts will also have the blessing and support of Pakistan’s powerful military establishment, which wants to balance ties with China and the United States. For example, Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa highlighted Pakistan’s long-standing and important strategic ties with the United States during last month’s Islamabad security dialogue, in stark contrast. with Khan’s anti-American rhetoric. Bajwas’ statements also indicated that the military establishment was unhappy with Khan’s foreign policy prospects.

Even if US-Pakistani relations improve, they are likely to remain transactional and security-centric. The United States’ long-term strategic interest in containing China aligns with India, not Pakistan, as Islamabad’s ties with Beijing enter a new era of bilateral strategic and economic cooperation with the launch of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The United States will view its future engagement with future governments of Pakistan through this strategic lens.

The United States’ long-term strategic interest in containing China aligns with India, not Pakistan, as Islamabad’s ties with Beijing enter a new era of bilateral strategic and economic cooperation with the continued development of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

However, there are signs that the relationship has started to take on a different tone than it was under Khan. Shortly after Shehbaz took office as Prime Minister, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken sent his congratulations and maintained that the United States views a strong, prosperous, and democratic Pakistan as essential to the interests of both our country. Yet, at the same time, the joint statement after the fourth annual US-India 2+2 dialogue in Washington urged Pakistan not to allow its territory to be used for cross-border terrorism, prompting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs authorities of Pakistan to reject the statement as unjustified. Despite the initial exchange, Secretary Blinken called Pakistan’s new Foreign Minister, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and invited him to attend a ministerial meeting on the Call to Action for Global Food Security at Headquarters. United Nations in New York on May 18. a one-on-one meeting between the secretaries at the conference, signaling that Islamabad believes this is an opportunity to re-establish ties.

Conclusion

Even if the reach of US-Pakistan relations remains close, Shehbaz’s government will still have to do the damage control it so badly needs to repair US-Pakistan relations. Pakistan has signaled that it wants friendly relations based on realistic assessments rather than the populist rhetoric seen under the Khan administration. The United States would also like to regain lost momentum and reset its perception among Pakistanis by renewing ties with the new Pakistani government. Broadening the lens of the relationship outside of the security-centric focus can help with this. The United States could achieve this goal by pushing the IMF to help Pakistan’s flagging economy, recommending Pakistan get off the FATF gray list, and acknowledging Pakistan’s sacrifices during the war on terror. In the meantime, Pakistan will also have to make serious efforts to address the fallout and the confidence gap that has been created during the vote of confidence. Pakistani Foreign Minister Bhutto’s visit to New York just weeks after former Prime Minister Khan’s visit to Russia amid the latter’s Ukrainian invasion, is also an indication that Pakistan appreciates Washington during times criticism of great power rivalry. This year, Islamabad and Washington are celebrating the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations, which would be more than an opportune time to restore ties.

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Image 1: United States Department of State via Flickr

Image 2: US State Department via Flickr

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