The Necessity of a U.S.-Pakistan Partnership
After President Trump issued his first executive order on immigration and refugees, which halted visas from seven predominantly Muslim countries, the White House indicated that additional countries, including Pakistan, could be added to the list in the future. In response, Pakistan’s Interior Minister criticized the executive order for fueling global terrorism and harming international alliances. This followed Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s congratulatory phone call to Trump after the election and a subsequent “productive conversation” regarding the future of U.S.-Pakistan relations. It seems the White House’s assurance to engage favorably with Pakistan may not be as credible as Sharif previously hoped. Yet despite temptations, the Trump administration should not alienate Pakistan and should aim to sustain a productive relationship with the country in order to prevent jeopardizing U.S. interests.
Over the last few years, U.S.-Pakistan relations have been on thin ice. During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in September 2016, Senator Bob Corker (R), chairman of the Committee, candidly addressed the ways in which US foreign aid to Pakistan – amounting over $33 billion since the early 2000s – has been futile in its efforts to combat terrorism. Many of his colleagues agreed, citing Pakistan’s lack of effort in dismantling the Haqqani network, a complex terrorist grid that has been attacking U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Following the hearing, which was tabled for further discussion in 2017, many predicted that the congressional budget allocations for Pakistan would decrease to below $1 billion per year in the coming years, down from a high of $3.5 billion in 2011.
The hearing reflected the approach by the Obama administration in South Asia of pivoting U.S. focus from Pakistan to India as a way to counter growing Chinese influence in the region. This approach sharply contrasted those of previous administrations that viewed Pakistan as the ultimate strategic ally in the region during the Cold War and, and more recently, in post 9/11 counterterrorism operations. However, the Obama administration grew wary about the partnership, as numerous weak and corrupt governments in Pakistan failed to meet U.S. expectations on counterterrorism. Obama’s rebalance to Asia created an opportunity for the U.S. to cultivate a new strategic partnership with India. This partnership has led to joint military trainings, increased information sharing regarding counterterrorism operations, and strengthened economic ventures for both countries. Meanwhile, engagement with Pakistan has decreased.
China has sought to fill the resulting loss in U.S. development assistance to Pakistan. In 2013, China and Pakistan signed 51 memorandums of understanding for economic cooperation, and China’s partnership with Pakistan has steamrolled ahead with the establishment of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). As a result, Pakistan has been able to supplement the decline in U.S. foreign funding with $46 billion in Chinese assistance, which is primarily allocated towards energy, infrastructure, industrial, health and education projects. Pakistan will also play a key role in accomplishing China’s quest to establish the One Belt, One Road initiative to connect China to the Middle East, Africa and Europe, while asserting regional dominance over India. Meanwhile, Chinese funding will assist Pakistan in its strategic Vision2025 plan for the country. Pakistan’s Minister of Planning and Economic Development Ashan Iqbal noted in an event at United States Institute of Peace earlier this year that by “leveraging Pakistan’s geo-economic advantage,” the CPEC has become a “big blessing for the country.”
As China continues to pump money into Pakistan, it has the potential to disrupt six decades of U.S. influence in its South Asian partner. If Trump’s executive order extends to include Pakistan, it would only push Islamabad further into Beijing’s arms. Pakistan is no longer solely dependent on the United States for assistance, which means the Trump administration has to be strategic in how it will engage with the country. The elimination or significant reduction of U.S. foreign assistance to Pakistan would have severe consequences for American presence in South Asia, particularly in Afghanistan, and for U.S. global counterterrorism efforts. Pakistan’s geo-strategic location – the country shares borders with Afghanistan, India, Iran, and China – makes it a tremendous asset for the United States.
Most importantly, the United States must maintain influence in Pakistan in order to prevent nuclear escalation between Pakistan and India. Unlike India, Pakistan does not have a “no first use” policy regarding nuclear weapons, which creates an asymmetric security imbalance within the region that could easily be manipulated by terrorist networks in Pakistan. China could also provoke Pakistan to assert a nuclear response against India, as China-India relations remain cold and China would benefit from a destabilized India.
While is imperative that the United States maintain current levels of foreign aid assistance to Pakistan, it may be time to strategically reassess where the funding should be allocated in order to ensure the greatest impact. The United States must continue to engage with Pakistan on security and counterterrorism issues, provide humanitarian assistance through the correct channels, and assist Pakistan’s development needs in an effort to curb future geopolitical hostility and to maintain a vital relationship within the region. Though Pakistan has not been included in Trump’s revised executive order on immigration and refugees, the uncertainty of Pakistan’s placement on the list in the future would lead to further deterioration in US-Pakistan relations, which could jeopardize US strategic interests on both critical regional and global levels.
Angel Sharma is the South Asia Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She works in the international development sector focusing on the rule of law and human rights at an international NGO. Angel received her MA in International Security from American University in 2016. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of any of the organizations with which the author is affiliated.