Pakistan wants to re-tie the knot with the US; but can it be the same again?
This week, in a focused and transcripted interview with a senior Washington Post staffer, Prime Minister Imran Khan sought to outline his government’s most watched for short-term foreign policy strategy – Pakistan’s frosty relations with the United States. Though the country is staggering at the brink of economic meltdown with no emergency rescue in sight, the trajectory of both countries’ relations has the potential of sealing the deal for this south Asian nation that has known only United States as a guardian and mentor ever since its birth, barring few interludes of flirts with China. And the deal can cut both ways. Either it can offer Pakistan a short reprieve to try and stay afloat or it can let the country adrift in uncharted and potentially hazardous waters.
Prime Minister Khan and his military overseers chose this time to unravel their intentions to stay firmly in the US camp for now and at least in public discourse. This first public acknowledgement came after the prime minister and the army chief visited Beijing in a bid to re-negotiate the basic structure of China Pakistan Economic Corridor. But during their visits they were told point blank that China would not want to change the nature of relationship from strategic to just economic and two, there would not be any cash available for Pakistan’s persistent budgetary support problems.
Back to the interview. Prime Minister Khan said that Pakistan would not like US to leave Afghanistan this time like it did after the Soviet withdrawal but it would like to see the US stay there till ‘the full settlement.’ This is a fundamental change from the position of Taliban who have made leaving Afghanistan as their number one pre-condition for peace. It also indicates clearly that Pakistan would like to help US stay and stabilise in Afghanistan post peace thus seeking to achieve two outcomes: a) It doesn’t want to have its own proxy in Afghanistan and would like to see a similar fallout that it saw during Mujahideen time. It also means that Pakistan wants to come fully on board with US peace plan and want to have a dividend in post-peace Afghan reconstruction. B) It also implies that Pakistan would not have any serious objection on US playing ball with its leading peace partner India. That would be a 180-degree shift.
When asked by the Post does Pakistan want its relations with the US warm up again. Khan’s reply said all. “Who would not want to be friends with a superpower.” This innocuous looking line clearly indicated that Pakistani establishment has decided, albeit ostensibly, to accept and sign the new terms of the agreement. The agreement would include ‘clauses’ on Pakistan stop supporting proxies that are hostile to the US and Indian interests in Afghanistan. Pakistan never severed its ties with these proxies and in fact openly supported and funded them to use against US interests in Afghanistan and for Jihad in Kashmir. So whatever they say publicly why it would be different this time round. Of course Pakistan always said one thing to its US benefactors and did the opposite throughout the course of all Afghan wars. So is it the change of heart? Or we are seeing the same game with new faces this time?
The difference this time round is Pakistan is the one who is asking for peace and settlement this time and not the other way round which has always been the case. The reasons are not so obscure and opaque. The country is fighting perhaps the last battle of survival as the cover is blown from China factor. As tensions on trade and security mount with the US, China’s path to the status of world superpower is becoming increasingly uncertain. China’s only interest in Pakistan, it seems, is its strategic access to Arabian sea through Gwadar port and its desire to be present at the belt bordering Afghanistan and Iran in the form of Pakistan’s army. The CPEC dollars are transactional and conditional on these two counts. There is no long-term supply guaranteed for Chinese money from Beijing and China’s own inflow of dollars is becoming increasingly uncertain due to fast changing global trade regulations and protocols.
Perhaps this is the reason why Prime Minister Khan said in the interview that Pakistan wants its relations with the US something on lines of China. Translation: it can be strategic but it should benefit Pakistan economically. However, it should not be transactional.
For Pakistan, even if they want to play Chinese game in the region, the constant inflow of dollars is uncertain. So the only choice left is to try to survive on whatever the trade and economic benefits peace with India and Afghanistan could offer to Pakistan. However, it would still leave one big and formidable question mark in the whole equation. Would Pakistan willing to play along with the US is the need arose against Iran and that too in some military role. This could Pakistan in a position of choosing between the two evils. And the decision either way would be fraught with very very dangerous consequences. – Ends