By Zamir Akram

In international politics there are no permanent friends or enemies — only permanent national interests. This truism is most obvious in Pakistan-US relations which, since 1947, have fluctuated between highs and lows depending upon the interests of both states. But the current state of free-fall in relations has been the most sustained and dangerous. There is, therefore, an urgent need to reset Pakistan-US relations for mutual interest.

While US officials have stressed the need for continued “engagement”, they also consider Pakistan “unreliable”, especially in the context of the Afghan imbroglio. The public discourse is much worse with some members of Congress accusing Pakistan of supporting terrorism against the US (along with India and Afghanistan) and threaten terrorism-related sanctions.

Our response so far has been pathetic — merely repeating inane talking points about the “friendship” between the two countries without a clear appreciation of the underlying reasons for the malaise, which is essential if we have to formulate our response.

The fluctuations in Pakistan-US relations have always been a function of global strategic dynamics. During the Cold War, Washington needed Islamabad’s cooperation against Moscow but after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the collapse of the Soviet Union ending the Cold War in 1990, the international strategic environment changed, leading to a dilution in US reliance on Pakistan. Relations witnessed an upswing again after 9/11 when the US needed Pakistan’s assistance in its “war on terror”, especially in Afghanistan. However, two major factors have come into effect since then that undermine bilateral relations. One is the growing divergence over the Afghan endgame. The US seeks a military solution by defeating the Afghan Taliban and blames Pakistan for allegedly supporting the insurgent group; whereas Islamabad believes that the stalemate can only be resolved through dialogue among the warring Afghan factions. The second factor is more strategic — involving the growing rivalry between the US and China wherein Washington seeks to contain a rising China through alliances with regional states including India, which has obvious negative consequences for Pakistan. Therefore, we must recognise that there is now a tactical and strategic divergence between Pakistan and the US. To protect and promote our interests in this environment will require a radical departure from our current policies that are mainly based on self-deception and platitudes.

In the immediate tactical context, we need to reach out to the Trump Administration and Congress to candidly convey what we can and cannot do, consistent with our national interests especially regarding Afghanistan instead of making commitments that we cannot fulfill, as done in the past.

Despite the anti-Pakistan campaign, there are still people in the US who recognise the utility of engaging with Pakistan. The Pentagon, in particular, is likely to be more responsive and General James Mattis as defence secretary, who knows the Afghan issue very well, could be a favourable interlocutor.

At the same time, we need to stress the emerging shared threat posed by the Islamic State together with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, rather than from the Afghan Taliban. We should also underline the futility of pursing the military option and press for an intra-Afghan dialogue to find a negotiated power-sharing agreement to end the civil war.

Moreover, we should try to address other US concerns such as about Pakistan’s nuclear programme, emphasising our credible deterrence needs against Indian conventional, nuclear and missile build-up and encourage the Trump Administration to play a constructive role to ensure strategic stability in South Asia. As for terrorism and role of non-state actors, we must better project our efforts at home and our willingness to cooperate with the US, Afghanistan and India but only within the parameters of our judicial system and on reciprocal basis. Moreover, our offer for such cooperation must be predicated on respect for our security and territorial integrity especially regarding our concerns about Indo-Afghan collusion to promote terrorism and insurgency in Pakistan, which the US has so far ignored. Of course, our cooperation must have a price tag.

In the strategic context, we need renewed convergence of our interests with the US. Cooperation against the IS and other terrorist groups is in our mutual interest and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Moreover, as a country of 200 million with a pivotal geo-political location, immense natural resources and possessing nuclear weapons, Pakistan has intrinsic strategic value. This explains our partnership with China and growing relations with Russia in a multi-polar world. Realisation of CPEC shall further enhance Pakistan’s geo-strategic significance as it will benefit the entire region from the South China Sea to the Mediterranean. Equally important, Pakistan plays a critical role in the larger Middle East and the Muslim world with special relations with Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia — countries of immense importance to the US. The US, therefore, cannot afford to ignore this strategic space that Pakistan provides.

Evolving a renewed strategic convergence with the US in a multi-polar would be a long-term endeavour and the relationship would be qualitatively different from the past. From our perspective, this partnership must ensure, at the very least, that US policies towards Pakistan and India would be truly balanced and equitable, helping to ensure strategic stability in South Asia. At the same time, Washington must recognise Islamabad’s strategic interests vis-a-vis Afghanistan.

Most importantly, our ability to reset relations with the US will depend upon the successes of our efforts to attain the capacity for self-reliance.

Internally, we must develop economically to break the dependence on foreign bailouts which are used as leverage and only sustain our elite in their privileged positions rather than actually helping the country. Our security must also be enhanced by stamping out terrorism and ensuring credible full spectrum deterrence against all threats.

In the external realm, we must develop options beyond the US through proactive diplomacy that positions Pakistan to benefit from our pivotal location. CPEC and our strategic partnership with China provide an unprecedented opportunity to broaden our horizon, through cooperation with Russia and strengthening engagement with other powers within the neighbourhood and beyond.