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Pak-US ties remain under the shadow of ‘terrorism’

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Pakistan and the US continue to cooperate in Afghanistan to bring about a political settlement and end the US’ longest war. But such cooperation does not seem to lead to a fundamental change in Pakistan-US ties. The US is still not able to integrate Pakistan into its ring of strategic allies aimed at containing China.

One reason for this is Pakistan’s close ties with China, making it a misfit in the US’ anti-China ‘global coalition’. But the fundamental reason is the unchanged mindset of the US establishment, which continues to see Pakistan as a ‘sponsor of terrorism’ in South Asia. 

This is why Pakistan, despite playing a highly constructive role in Afghanistan, has not received any meaningful support from the US in the FATF. Pakistan has sanctioned dozens of important Taliban leaders, including their chief negotiator, Abdul Ghani Bardar. But the US is talking to the very same Abdul Ghani Bardar. 

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Despite putting sanction on Ghani Bardar, Pakistan received no support from the US. This speaks volumes about the gap that exists between Pakistan and the US.

Many analysts have tended to interpret this move as a Pakistani tactic to put pressure on the Taliban to quickly start intra-Afghan talks. But such a view misses the point that the Taliban have not really disengaged from the process. The only bottleneck was/is, as I explained in one of my previous pieces for SAM, Kabul’s reluctance to release Taliban commanders, some of whom have serious allegations against them.

Pakistan’s decision to sanction the Taliban leaders shows that it continues to be troubled by the largely accepted US narrative on Pakistan’s ‘sponsorship’ of terrorism. Even the latest US State Department country reports on terrorism shows that the US continues to produce the same narrative. To quote the report:

“Pakistan took modest steps in 2019 to counter terror financing and restrain India-focused militant groups from conducting large-scale attacks following the February attack on a security convoy in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir linked to Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM).”

The report, while recognizing some “positive contribution” that Pakistan has made towards the Afghanistan peace process, goes on to say: 

“However, Pakistan remained a safe harbor for other regionally focused terrorist groups. It allowed groups targeting Afghanistan, including the Afghan Taliban and affiliated HQN, as well as groups targeting India, including LeT and its affiliated front organizations, and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), to operate from its territory. It took no notable action against known terrorists, such as JeM founder and UN-designated terrorist Masood Azhar and 2008 Mumbai attack “project manager” Sajid Mir, both of whom are believed to remain free in Pakistan.”

The fact that there is an unavoidable and inevitable shift in Pakistan’s foreign policy trajectory away from the US in not surprising. In fact, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan recently acknowledged this in an interview where he said that Pakistan’s [economic] future is now “intertwined” with China (not the US or the West).

Since the start of the so-called ‘war on terror’, the US has been the largest source of foreign aid for Islamabad, providing billions of dollars in military and civilian assistance as part of the broader effort to defeat the Afghan Taliban. But Pakistan’s PM now sees Pakistan’s future tied with China. This shows that Pakistan sees no other choice but to pick a side in the emerging US-China rivalry.

Even if this rivalry does not turn into a bi-polar ‘new cold war’, for a country like Pakistan which has a history of bilateral relations with both countries, the rivalry still very much presents itself in typical bi-polar terms, preventing Pakistan’s emergence as an “economic melting pot of the region” as National Security Advisor Moeed Yusuf recently said.

Pakistan could become an “economic melting pot” through its partnership with China, but that ambition is highly unlikely to be realized since Pakistan has to walk the right rope between China and the US. The US has a very different approach to China and the China-Pakistan-Economic Corridor. 

However, Pakistan is unlikely to scale back its ties with China-something the US has been demanding. This means that Pakistan will remain under pressure from the US, both militarily and economically. Pakistan’s key role in the Afghan reconciliation would not make a major impact, stretching well beyond the war in Afghanistan, to its ties with the US.