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Pak-US Reset: Evolving Options

After the recent exchange of letters between the President of the US and the Prime Minister of Pakistan, bilateral relations between the two countries have assumed a new trajectory. This also indicates that the US is not likely to put all its eggs in the Indian basket with regard to its China Policy. Given the dynamic nature of global and regional geopolitics, these ties have, by and large, followed a rollercoaster path. Pakistan and the US have traditionally had a transactional relationship that was mostly influenced by the geopolitics of the day. Every low spell in this relationship reiterated to both sides that divorce between the two was not an option. Over the years, the Pak-US connexion has evolved into a self-healing system to recover to normalcy. After months of a cold spell, relations between the two nations are, once again, normal and improving.

The historical pattern of ties has not changed. Once again, it’s the mutual dependence that has brought the two parties together. Pakistan remains a crucial nation for regional security and counterterrorism operations. During some of the recently held hearings in the US Senate subcommittees, the US CENTCOM Chief Michael Kurilla emphasised the centrality of Pakistan in the context of the US counter-terrorism policy. The US ambassador to Pakistan has also reiterated during his recent congressional hearings that ties between Pakistan and the US should prioritise counterterrorism.

Likewise, given the overwhelming influence the US has over organisations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Pakistan needs continuous US backing to recover its wavering economy. The US is Pakistan’s biggest trading partner, contributing significantly to investments in several industries. Several American businesses have their presence in Pakistan, which supports the country’s economic growth. Moreover, the US invariably offers Pakistan extensive and prompt assistance whenever the latter is hit by any natural calamity like floods and earthquakes etc. Mr Biden has, once again, expressed resolve to hasten Pakistan’s recovery from the catastrophic floods of 2022.

President Joe Biden’s letter has emphasised the following common goals for future cooperation: health security, economic prosperity, and access to education. Another significant domain suggested for cooperation is the “Green Alliance” framework, which aims to leverage the combined strengths of the two countries to enhance collaboration in climate resilience and water management. Biden also restated Washington’s commitment to “continue to stand with Pakistan to tackle the most pressing global and regional challenges”. These offers fit well into Pakistan’s enduring needs.

Positive symbolism is expressed in President Biden’s letter, which aims to convey that Pakistan is still considered a friendly nation by the United States in its regional calculations. The US President has called for an “enduring partnership” between the two nations. It also shows that the US is prepared to cooperate with Pakistan and have positive interactions to achieve shared objectives.

President Biden’s letter was sent shortly after the US rejected Pakistan’s request to have the sanctions on the Pak-Iran gas pipeline project waived. The US firmly threatened Pakistan with penalties if the project moved forward, despite being fully aware of the relief this pipeline could offer to the people of Pakistan in the face of unprecedented inflation. This establishes the scope and boundaries of the new reset; it shall operate within the larger framework of the broader US geopolitical orientation and inclinations. Going by this yardstick, Pakistan’s collaborations with China, especially regarding China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and cooperation in the field of civil sector applications of nuclear technology shall remain under perpetual US scrutiny. Given the recent Iranian air raid over Israel, the US attitude about Pak-Iran cooperation is also likely to become stiffer.

The current state of affairs in Afghanistan is abysmal, over two dozen terrorist organisations have acquired a significant footprint since the Taliban retook control in August 2021. These outfits are using the Afghan soil as a springboard for destabilising the region. This all is happening under the watch of the Taliban regime. Moreover, the Taliban-led government has handed over a huge cache of arms and munitions, left behind by The US, to these terrorist groups. The spectre of Afghanistan once again becoming an epicentre of terrorism cannot be ruled out. Countering this menace before it could become a global threat may be the cause of the US’s newfound interest in Pakistan.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif responded to Biden’s letter by stating that Pakistan placed “high importance on its relations with the United States” and that Islamabad was willing to collaborate with Washington to accomplish the shared objectives of regional and global growth as well as peace and security. The degree to which Pakistan can cooperate with the US in combating domestic, regional, and international terrorism continues to be a crucial factor. The region surrounding Pakistan, which includes Afghanistan, Iran, and India, is the epicentre of these difficulties. The Pak-US relations are poised to continue posing daunting challenges to the managers of Pakistan’s foreign policy.

Air Commodore Khalid Iqbal TI(M) (Retd) is Director National Security at the Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies.