Resetting US-Pakistan Relations: Changing the Lens

Posted on 02/4/21
By Haya Fatima Sehgal | via ViewsWeek
(Photo courtesy U.S. Dept of State: South and Central Asia, CC license)
The second webinar of the series called the “RESET OF US-PAKISTAN RELATIONS” hosted by KCFR (Karachi Council on Foreign Relations) was held on January 19, 2021. It was a pleasure listening to a fresh and candid approach to the multiple complexities of the relationship between the two countries as well as a way going forward. Much appreciation for our US counterparts to take the time out in the early hours of the morning and contribute with meaningful information to the meeting. The second meeting consisted of Ambassador Robin Raphel (Former diplomat and expert on Pakistan Affairs), Michael Kugelman (Deputy Director, Wilson Centre), Shah Mahmood Qureshi (Minister of Foreign Affairs), Ambassador Zamir Akram (Pakistan’s former Permanent Rep. to the UN, Geneva), Ambassador Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry (Former Ambassador to US, diplomat and Director Institute of Strategic Studies).

There is a good opportunity to approach the US-Pakistan relationship on its own merits and not through the lens of India or China or Afghanistan.
The conversation certainly had a very honest and forthcoming approach which was seen in both sessions. The second meeting was categorically divided into a few segments in terms of outlining the relationship now mainly highlighting: 1) The role Pakistan played in the world today and in the US-Afghan peace process 2) China as a major factor of security concern for the US  3) India-Pakistan issues especially in terms of Kashmir and 4) The new independent lens through which Pakistan could be seen through rather than the role it has played previously as only being a conduit in terms of or for another country or a strategic ally. These visible points were clearly signaled as the focus of the discussion.

A very interesting point was raised by Mr. Michael Kugelman and Amb. Robin Raphel who agreed that the “reset” in the relationship had already occurred during the Trump administration which had started the talks facilitating the US-Afghan peace process. The new administration would of course be carrying the work forward. But what would it mean for Pakistan, who has remained a proxy between countries- be it the Cold War and then again in the process of the twenty years in Afghanistan?

It seemed with the developments both here and across the world as it stands with the global pandemic and the economic meltdown, the US will now look to their own. Focus would be domestically to enhance their own position for its people. It has been stated very bluntly that financial aid would not be a conversation for Pakistan. This much was outlined very categorically in both meetings. As far as the US-Afghan peace process was concerned, once the process was facilitated there would have to be a new role with which Pakistan would need to define itself with regard to the US. In the past it has had a tumultuous relationship and perhaps the new dialogue can now lead the way through “another lens”.

Amb. Robin Raphel said that Pakistan, to her, was an important country not only because of its geo-political strengths but also as the value it held as its own with its natural resources, youth population and entrepreneurial spirit.

FM Shah Mahmood Qureshi said that we are at a ‘crucial juncture’ here. He also said that the current government under Prime Minister Imran Khan was expressing a willingness to address the issues at hand. A talk of think tanks to strategically sort the challenges was also being geared up. It was agreed upon that the current government faces plenty of challenges, not just in terms of the pandemic but also domestic economic instability.

When speaking about China, Pakistan was clear on the stance that it cannot let go of its relationship with China as it shares a border with its neighbor. It is also not possible to be in one camp or the other or to take sides. With CPEC and BRI underway, there are billions of dollars in trade and commerce which have already been invested. And the relationship of trade and business with one country should never have an impact on another one. Pakistan will have to remain neutral in its location and it has shared only good support with its neighbor.

On the concerns with India, there was no sense of forward-movement for Pakistan or on the topic of Kashmir and only one thought emerged that Delhi would be on the Biden administration’s agenda as being considered its next ‘security advisor’ – specifically in terms of the region and pushback to China.

Both Mr. Michael Kugleman and Amb. Robin Raphel added some constructive points as to how Pakistan could take the relationship forward. It was also widely felt that the Biden administration would want to view Pakistan through an economic lens. Here we could identify new anchors for the relationship. It is true that Pakistan has a long history of raised red flags in terms of tax evasion, insufficient transparency, and a lot of red tapes but it is also aware that changes are critical for it or any government in the future to establish an honest dialogue. Numerous non-security assignments would be the focus such as climate change talks, the scope for investments, energy, public health, cybersecurity, information technology, and even the contribution of the Pakistani American community. Here is a good opportunity to approach the US-Pakistan relationship on its own merits and not through the lens of India or China or Afghanistan. There is so much more the country can offer and the Biden administration could be a big booster for all of this. It was even noted that Pakistan had set a new record achievement in trade volume. A special mention of Amb. Raphel who certainly knew how to relate information very clearly and concisely, giving a solution-oriented talk which was much appreciated by the participants.

And here is the take-home from the meeting which came through. That is the opportunity to build a more honest relationship which would be based on trust and transparency.  Here, Pakistan must be ready to disengage from previous things that have caused it to be negatively viewed by the world.

What we also need is a new narrative with things aligned internally. We must get our house in order, so to speak. The new world will not accept anything less no matter which government takes the seat of power. Amb. Raphel spoke of “widening the aperture” by utilizing the resources we have to promote a positive engagement. But here is the real question; we know what to do but will we want to do this? And can Pakistan widen the aperture for itself and create its own lens from which it can be viewed from?  All of this remains to be seen by the conscious decisions we make for ourselves.

The writer is known for her articles on cultural impact.

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