Both sides want peace and stability in the region. What’s next for the bilateral relationship as the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan?
For the last two decades, U.S.-Pakistan relations have been defined by the war in Afghanistan and counterterrorism concerns. With the United States military withdrawal almost complete, the relationship should broaden to focus on other issues important to both countries and the broader South Asia region. The Afghan peace process, however, will continue to be an important component of U.S.-Pakistan relations, said Pakistan’s envoy to the United States on Wednesday. “Afghanistan, for some time, did become [a point of] contention in our relationship. But today, clearly, Afghanistan is a [point of] convergence between Pakistan and United States” as both want to see peace and stability, said Ambassador Asad Majeed Khan.
Khan delivered wide-ranging remarks in a discussion with USIP Senior Advisor Richard Olson, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan.
Particularly over the last decade, the “centrality of Afghanistan” has impeded cooperation on other important aspects of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, Khan said at USIP in 2019. Beyond the Afghanistan war and peace process, there are a host of critical issues that will shape the contours of the relationship in the years ahead, ranging from U.S.-China competition to strategic stability in South Asia to bilateral economic cooperation.
The Afghan Peace Process: Peace is Winnable
Khan urged Washington to remain engaged in the peace process after the U.S. withdrawal is complete. “The whole conversation in Washington [on Afghanistan] has come around to the protection of the U.S. embassy, securing the airport and [providing] visas for Afghan interpreters,” he said. Meanwhile, intra-Afghan negotiations seem to be at an intractable stalemate and the Taliban are rapidly advancing across rural areas and gaining control of more and more districts across Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
“Investing in peace in Afghanistan is basically the best counterterrorism measure and the best guarantee against [needing to fight] terrorism in Afghanistan,” said Khan.
It’s not just Washington and Islamabad that have come to a “convergence” on Afghanistan: the broader region, from China to Iran to Russia, do not want or benefit from a Taliban takeover or a civil war. “The disruption to regional trade and flows of refugees are major concerns,” said Scott Worden, the director of USIP’s Afghanistan programs.
Khan pointed to the Troika Plus Declaration — made by Russia, China, Pakistan and the United States — as an example of this regional consensus, which, among other things, asserts that the Taliban and Afghan government will need to come to a common understanding and reach a political settlement to end the war.
Pakistan’s complicated relationship with the Taliban has long been a point of discord between Washington and Islamabad. Islamabad been widely criticized opprobrium for providing support and safe haven to the Afghan Taliban.
When asked by Olson, a former U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, what message Pakistan would deliver to the Taliban, Khan again pointed to the principles adduced in the Troika Plus Declaration and similar communiques. “That’s the message … Taking over Kabul by force will not be acceptable … All countries support an inclusive end state. There has been a clear message on the reduction of violence,” he said, adding, “What we have made clear is that we want the parties to talk, and we are ready to help in every possible way.”
Nonetheless, Olson noted that Taliban fighters are still able to get medical attention in Pakistan as one example of how the lines remain blurred when it comes to Pakistan’s support for the Taliban and the peace process.
“Pakistan has long had leverage over the Afghan Taliban and at times has used it to facilitate talks between the Taliban and the United States,” said Tamanna Salikuddin, USIP’s director for South Asia programs. “While the nature of this leverage is changing given the Taliban’s military gains inside Afghanistan, the United States and the region will continue to look to Pakistan to exert its influence with the Taliban to get them to negotiate in good faith,” added Salikuddin, who previously served as a senior advisor to the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Ultimately, Khan said there is no military solution, a sentiment shared across the region. “I hear the president of the United States say that this is not a winnable war, but then peace is certainly winnable,” he said.
Pakistan Bestride U.S.-China Competition
The Biden administration has focused its foreign policy on countering China’s influence worldwide. For its part, Pakistan has a longstanding strategic relationship with its northeastern neighbor and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor — a $60 billion investment in infrastructure projects — has only deepened those ties.
But, for Islamabad, great power competition is not a zero-sum game. “Pakistan has very successfully managed good relations between China and the United States. We are definitely keen and determined to maintain that balance,” Khan said.
Khan said that Pakistan would like to see Washington and Beijing work together when common interests are at stake. “We clearly see enough space for both the United States and China to co-exist and cooperate … it also serves the interests of the region,” said Khan. He pointed to Afghanistan as an opportunity for the two great powers to work together to help ensure peace and stability in the region.
As China continues to invest billions in the region, the allure of Beijing is strong, particularly among countries with struggling economies, like Pakistan. “While [the United States] is the indispensable nation, China today is an irresistible country for many developing countries for what they bring to the table in terms of trade and investment related incentives … [and] economic assistance and support,” said Khan.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has been a leading voice against Islamophobia, particularly in European countries. Pakistan has also been a prominent advocate for the rights of Kashmiris. Yet, Olson noted that Islamabad had not responded similarly to the plight of the Uyghurs in China’s western Xinjiang province. “We really don’t see any comparison at all,” said Khan. “Kashmir is a dispute between Indian and Pakistan and Pakistan has a legitimate right to voice its concerns on whatever happens there.”
Pakistan’s Oldest Rivalry and Strategic Stability in South Asia
The decades old India-Pakistan rivalry has intensified in recent years, particularly after New Delhi’s 2019 decision to revoke the constitutional autonomy and statehood of the disputed Indian-administered region of Kashmir. With both countries holding nuclear weapons arsenals, the Line of Control — a military control line between the Indian- and Pakistani-administered parts of Kashmir — “is perhaps the most dangerous place in the world,” said Olson.
The rise in tensions has left many to worry about how to enhance strategic stability in South Asia. “The basic framework for any conversation will have to start from some level of trust and confidence on both sides,” said Khan. “And the situation in Kashmir has vitiated the environment to a point that there is, frankly, very little or no engagement with India.”
Earlier this year, Pakistan’s powerful army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa asked India to “bury the past and move forward,” a moment that Olson called “striking.” Prime Minister Khan has also called on India to work with Islamabad to resolve issues over Kashmir. Ambassador Khan said that it was both “ironical” and “sad” that the Pakistani premier “wishes to resolve outstanding issues with India through dialogue and engagement,” but Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi wants to “use Pakistan as a punching bag to basically prop up their falling approval ratings.”
“This is both sad and very unfortunate for the prospects of peace between India and Pakistan,” said Khan.
For its part, India sees the revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy as an internal matter and as a way to prevent a repeat of the intense terrorism that Kashmir saw after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan as U.S. troops leave the country.
When you add China to the mix — which has had its own border tensions with India in recent years — there are three of the world’s five biggest countries, all of which are nuclear armed. Stability in South Asia is tantamount to global security. Khan said this should spur engagement from the international community, particularly the United States, to engage with all three parties and “seek resolution through dialogue.”
Pakistan’s Reorientation to Geoeconomics
Earlier this year, senior Pakistani officials signaled that Islamabad’s foreign policy will shift from a focus on geopolitics to geoeconomics, moving, in other words, from a hard-power approach to an economic-focused one.
“Our foreign policy should be driven by our economic interests and by the preference and priority of the government to provide better a life and livelihood to our people,” said Khan. “So that is what geo-economics is for us.”
Critics of this approach note that Pakistan needs to get its economic house in order before such a shift can take place in any meaningful way. Strengthening the country’s economy remains an uphill battle. A recent World Bank report, for example, said that Pakistan’s total export potential stands at more than $88 billion, nearly four times its current export earnings. But Islamabad is mired in a debt crisis that financial institutions like the IMF, World Bank and Asian Development Bank have all said requires deep structural reform.
One area Khan focused on that he said could improve Pakistan’s struggling economy is enhanced trade and collaboration with the United States. He pointed to energy, agriculture and technology as three areas ripe for stepped up U.S.-Pakistan economic cooperation.
The United States is one of the top investors in Pakistan and one of the largest remittance providers. In 2019, two-way goods trade between the two countries reached $6.6 billion. Yet, Khan said, “We are just scratching the surface.