Bilateral relations among countries are based on various factors like geography, economic prospects, and cultural and religious harmony based on societal understanding. With the emergence of modern means of transportation and globalisation, diasporic lobbying has also played a crucial role in building relationships among different countries. Though the abovementioned factors seem very straightforward, they are complex when it comes to the practical translation of sustainable relationships between two countries. The ties between Pakistan and the United States (US), after 75 years, have not realised the full potential of sustainable bilateral relations. Both countries, geographically, are far apart but still have retained engagement that has lasted years. The geostrategic interests of the US during the Cold War and then after 9/11 in South Asia brought both countries into a closed net. It has been recorded in the annals of history that after each crisis, be it the Afghan war of the Cold War era or the War on Terrorism, Pakistan and the US remained strategically involved in addressing the issue. But, each time, a blame game ensued because both are fundamentally oriented at different levels of cognition of the situation and procurement of their respective interests. This aspect of engagement is still shaping the relationship.
The engagement between Pakistan and the US during Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) tenure has remained a low-key affair. Despite the fact that Imran Khan was one of the populists elected as Prime Minister, his presence in office continued to have a negative impact on US-Pak relations. Before deeply going into Pakistan and the US affairs during Khan’s time, it is pertinent to mention here that, per the individual personality analysis, it was obvious that Imran Khan, being an ideologue, would be tough and rigid with his US counterparts. Khan did not align with the US stance on the War on Terrorism, taking it as an American war meant to attain their strategic interests. Therefore, he kept criticising the former Pakistani government’s choice to be an ally of the US. Thus, from the beginning, the chances of improvement in relations between both countries were minimal. On the other hand, the Pakistani Americans living in the US were exceptional and in favour of Khan. But, he could not successfully channel the Pakistani diaspora for effective lobbying in the US.
The mistrust optics were dominant in the Trump administration’s aid suspension decision. However, in 2019, the Trump administration approached the Kashmir issue rather differently by offering mediation.
The template of Pak-US relations since 2018 has features of “avoiding friction”. The US was not clear about handling Khan because of his previous stance on Afghan wars and drone attacks. Rather than engaging Pakistan through a proper, rational channel, Trump relied on tweet diplomacy that presented an overconfident attitude. In 2018, the US said that it was suspending at least $900M in security assistance to Pakistan unless the country acted against extremist groups such as the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network. The decision was announced by the US State Department, which stated that it reflected the frustration of the Trump administration as Pakistan had not done more against the two groups that the US claims use sanctuaries in Pakistan to launch attacks in neighbouring Afghanistan. Those attacks killed US troops, Afghan troops, and other forces. The mistrust optics were dominant in the Trump administration’s aid suspension decision. However, in 2019, the Trump administration approached the Kashmir issue rather differently by offering mediation for the matter. It was immediately rejected by India, terming it a bilateral issue between Pakistan and India. Pakistani circles were not surprised, though, by this offer because of the remoteness of its practicability. India, in August 2019, revoked the special status of Kashmir by making it part of India forcefully. So, Trump’s offer appeared as an offer without any substance in it.
In addition, with the change of the US administration till the outstation of Khan, the bilateral relations revolved around the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Pakistan attempted to convey her shift in paradigm from geostrategic to geoeconomics, but nothing significant was accomplished. On the other hand, Pakistan saw a rise in anti-Americanism triggered by the “regime change mantra” of Khan, with the ideologue convincing the masses through his narrative. On the other hand, the US took leverage from Pakistan by pulling the Taliban into negotiating a direct deal with them. The fall of Kabul was not reasoned with the internal weakness of Afghanistan; rather, the Biden administration blamed Pakistan for it by pushing a bill in their senate against Pakistan. Pakistan took that bill as “anti-Pakistan”.
The problem was that the United States wanted more from Pakistan in Afghanistan once Kabul fell in 2021. This presented a difficult situation. Pakistan maintains that it is doing everything in its power. Pakistan has already accomplished a great deal by bringing the Taliban to the table for negotiations, and there are genuine limits to the amount of influence it can have over the group. The administration of President Joe Biden continued to view Pakistan through the lens of the countries located in its immediate vicinity, particularly Afghanistan, India, and China. As a result of his service on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and his time as vice president, Biden has a comprehensive understanding of Pakistan. Pakistanis had hoped that would be enough for a reset and for widening the scope of the relationship. However, the reality was that Biden was “too busy elsewhere — with more pressing concerns both domestically and abroad — to focus on Pakistan beyond the Afghanistan issue,” at least during Imran Khan’s tenure.
Pakistan and US are still at crossroads in looking for sustained bilateral relations. Both countries need to break the current optics approach of perceiving each other. Both states hold an equal amount of good and bad memories of each other. Nevertheless, Pakistan is the fifth largest consumer market, while the US has long remained Pakistan’s largest trade market. Sustained trade relations are a good place to start. In addition, US and Pakistan need to interact with each other without attaching their bilateral policies to a third country.