Mike Pompeo heads to Pakistan: Trust deficit between Washington, Islamabad unlikely to be mitigated by one visit

The announcement of the cancellation of more than $300 million of aid to Pakistan just before Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's Wednesday visit to Islamabad was not something Prime Minister Imran Khan would have expected while beginning his government's engagement with the US. Imran is still learning how to balance Pakistan's complex and competing foreign policy priorities.

Pompeo’s forthcoming visit, to be accompanied by General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is the first high-level dialogue between Washington and Islamabad since Imran assumed office following the recently-held General Election. The cancellation of aid is a continuation of the bitter saga of fundamental clashes in terms of expectations and interests between the US and Pakistan, further reflecting the frustration of the Donald Trump administration in its apparent inability to force Rawalpindi to rein in the Afghan insurgency.

Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Kone Faulkner made the unpalatable statement: "Due to a lack of Pakistani decisive actions in support of the South Asia Strategy the remaining $300 million was reprogrammed." The cancelled aid was to come from the Coalition Support Funds (CSF) established to help Pakistani counterterrorism and to secure its borders with neighbouring Afghanistan. It will bring the total amount withheld from Pakistan under the CSF to $800 million since early this year when Trump, through a tweet, launched a scathing criticism against Pakistan for betraying the US. A few days later, the US announced the suspension of around $2 billion in security aid to Islamabad.

The current tension between the US and Pakistan is not new to the Trump administration but represents a long-standing problem between the two countries, as both have used the opportunistic alliance to pursue their own strategic agendas. The underlying reason for the latest US decision is Pakistan’s long-standing support for the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network in Afghanistan against American and NATO troops. Through its military-intelligence establishment, Pakistan has long maintained both overt and covert ties with militant and Islamist groups of all hues for securing strategic depth in Afghanistan. This is largely driven by its historic enmity with neighbouring India, seeking to counter India’s influence on the western border.

File image of US secretary of state Mike Pompeo. AP

File image of US secretary of state Mike Pompeo. AP

As a result of suspension of American military aid combined with continued pressure on Islamabad, there is dwindling Pakistani support for American aims in South Asia, engendering in Pakistan’s common people and elite the perception that China is now their all-weather friend. What has further boosted this relationship is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is an essential component of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as part of China’s grand strategy to gain access to far-flung regions and to broaden its power base around the world.

Although the US has not completely rejected the CPEC, Defence Secretary James Mattis has categorically stated that Washington cannot support connectivity projects that raise sovereignty concerns, clearly echoing the view of New Delhi, which is opposed to the CPEC because it passes through the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). Surely, the US is not happy at its top strategic rival deepening its strategic footprint in Pakistan. Over the years, China has increased the amount of military aid to Pakistan. As per one estimate, more than 60 percent of Pakistan's military equipment came from China in 2016, with less than 20 percent coming from America.

However, the fundamental contradiction in US-Pakistan relations is that no party is willing to terminate this partnership, preferring to maintain a working relationship. The US views its relationship with Pakistan primarily through the Afghan lens as it needs to ensure that NATO supply lines on Pakistani soil remain open to pursue its objectives in Afghanistan. Moreover, it is not in the interest of the US to see a nuclear-armed and a politically volatile Pakistan turning totally hostile to American interests. On the other hand, Pakistan also values its historic partnership with the US, in particular the prestige and the sophisticated weaponry that comes with it. And despite the public rhetoric, Pakistan’s corridors of power do not want to rock the boat as they are not unaware of the cost of antagonising the US beyond a point. The Pakistan’s military establishment cannot think of losing American friendship, howsoever expensive it may have become to maintain.

Imran’s views on foreign affairs seem to be fairly consistent with those of Pakistan’s military establishment: His sympathetic attitude toward violent non-state actors, his desire to resolve the Kashmir issue, his uncritical support to Pakistan’s partnerships with China and Saudi Arabia are clear manifestations of Islamabad and Rawalpindi being on the same page. The only difference is America. Before being appointed prime minister, Imran did not spare any opportunity in expressing his strong opposition to American military presence in Afghanistan, while often criticising the US about using Pakistan as a client state.

Once, he got so carried away as to suggest shooting down of US drones targeting terrorists along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border if he became the prime minister. But the Pakistani military is keen to continue its association with the Pentagon and does not support the idea of discarding the US. Imran is also not interested in arguing with the powerful military so early. Therefore, as prime minister, he is maintaining that Pakistan is interested in having better ties with the US with the caveat that it should be based on mutual benefit: "We want a relationship with America that benefits both the countries, that it is a balanced relationship, and God willing, we will try our best for that balanced relationship."

The trouble is that there are no signs yet of any balance in the relationship. The Pompeo visit is already marred by a controversy over a telephonic conversation on 23 August between Pompeo and Imran. A description of the call released by the State Department said that Pompeo raised “the importance of Pakistan taking decisive action against all terrorists operating in Pakistan and its vital role in promoting the Afghan peace process.” But Pakistan's Foreign Office rejected the statement released by the State Department: “Pakistan takes exception to the factually incorrect statement issued by US State Dept on today’s phone call between PM Imran and Secretary Pompeo. There was no mention at all in the conversation about terrorists operating in Pakistan.” When the State Department was asked to “immediately correct” the statement, the latter stood by its version and asserted that there would be no correction.

Obviously, Pakistan is not happy with the latest cut in military aid. Islamabad desperately needs Washington's backing for an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout to ease its dire economic condition. If the government is left with no other option but to seek the IMF help, it needs the Trump administration’s favour. The US has the largest share of votes at the IMF. Realising its precarious economic circumstances, Pakistan has decided not to overreact.

Adopting a largely conciliatory tone, Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi reminded the US that the cancelled amount was not aid but the expenses incurred in the fight against terrorism: "It is not a cut in any aid, it is not assistance. This is our own money that we have used for improving regional security situation and they had to reimburse it to us." The intent of this statement was to underline the fact that both were official allies in fighting terrorism. Deviating from the pre-election anti-American rhetoric, Qureshi emphasised that Pakistan wanted good relationship with the US. The new government seems to have realised to its discomfiture that bravado will not work under present circumstances.

The US move was widely expected as the Pentagon has been trying hard to put pressure on Islamabad to prevent the Afghan Taliban from using Pakistani soil for engineering terror attacks across Afghanistan. In order to deflect some of the pressure, Pakistan is building relations with Russia and there have been significant developments in that direction. Trump’s decision to suspend military assistance to Pakistan has resulted in the US suspending training and educational programs for Pakistani military officers, allowing Russia to come further closer to Pakistan. Last month, Moscow agreed to open the doors of its military academies to train Pakistani military officers.

At a time when the Afghan Taliban is trying to maximise its advantage on the battlefield in order to win greater concessions from the US at the negotiating table, the Trump administration is rightly demanding that Pakistan play a more positive role in facilitating the political dialogue in Afghanistan.

Pakistan must stop pursuing counterproductive strategies and instead work towards the common international goal of ending the Afghan war. But it is easier said than done since the overall aims set by Washington and Islamabad are driven by divergent perspectives and contradictory expectations. For the US, everything boils down to how Rawalpindi can help the Pentagon’s war efforts in Afghanistan. For Pakistan, everything is about minimising the so-called threat from India. That India is a close strategic partner of the US does not help matters for Pakistan. It will not escape Rawalpindi’s attention that Pompeo’s next destination is New Delhi where he will also be joined by Mattis.

The trust deficit between the US and Pakistan is too deep to be overcome by one high-profile visit. Looking beyond the current frictions, future prospects of US-Pakistan ties do not look bright. The reality is that until Afghanistan stabilises, American pressure on Pakistan is not likely to diminish. And the prospects of it happening soon are remote.

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Updated Date: Sep 04, 2018 10:12:22 IST

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