Despite Khan’s Visit, U.S.-Pakistan Ties Aren’t Ready for a Reset

President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Imran Khan in the Oval Office of the White House.
President Donald Trump during a meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in the Oval Office of the White House, July 22, 2019, Washington (AP photo by Alex Brandon).

Michael Kugelman Friday, July 26, 2019

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan enjoyed a warm visit to Washington this week, with his hosts, from President Donald Trump to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sen. Lindsey Graham, all affirming the importance in particular of cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan in Afghanistan. For a Pakistani government that viewed Khan’s visit as an opportunity to reset a relationship that suffered immensely during the early months of the Trump administration, it was an encouraging sign.

The bilateral relationship has indeed come a long way since 2017 and 2018, when Trump threatened a harder line on Pakistan, tweeted angrily about Islamabad’s “lies and deceit,” and suspended American security assistance. The main reason for this about-face is rooted in Trump’s increasingly urgent desire to end the long war in Afghanistan—a war he often criticized before becoming president and has never seemed comfortable continuing, even when he announced a new South Asia strategy in August 2017 that entailed staying the course.

In recent months, the Trump White House has decided to aggressively pursue peace talks in Afghanistan and to enlist Islamabad as a key partner in helping launch and sustain negotiations with the Taliban. The administration invited Khan to Washington in large part to recognize and reward Pakistan for its help with the Afghan reconciliation process over the past year, bringing U.S. government officials and Taliban representatives together for multiple bilateral talks in Qatar.

However, despite this progress, it would be premature to conclude—as many in Islamabad would like to—that the relationship with Washington has been reset. A restoration of security assistance, a resumption of high-level dialogue or other signs of repaired relations are not on the horizon anytime soon. In essence, from the Trump administration’s perspective, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship may have improved, but that doesn’t mean a reset is in order—or that Trump even wants one.

First, as Trump and other U.S. leaders likely made clear to Khan and other senior Pakistani officials traveling with him, Washington’s two core priorities with Pakistan are Islamabad’s assistance in Afghanistan and Pakistani counterterrorism efforts. To be sure, the Trump administration is open to broader cooperation, particularly when it comes to trade and investment. During Khan’s visit, an official White House statement, and Trump himself, made reference to U.S.-Pakistan trade cooperation, while Khan met with both the secretaries of the treasury and commerce. However, for the Trump administration, there’s little real interest in truly broadening the scope of the relationship until it believes Pakistan is doing more on the Afghan reconciliation and counterterrorism fronts.

The U.S.-Pakistan relationship may have improved, but that doesn’t mean a reset is in order—or that Trump even wants one.

This leads to the second reason why a reset isn’t in the cards: Islamabad is unlikely to deliver in a way that satisfies Washington. The Trump administration wants Pakistan to convince the Taliban to agree to a cease-fire and to formal negotiations with the Afghan government. Yet Taliban insurgents have categorically rejected these demands and appear to be interested only in a deal with Washington that involves the withdrawal of U.S. troops. The Taliban, of course, enjoys ample leverage and comes into talks from a position of renewed strength. It is waging intense battlefield offensives, holds more territory than at any time since the U.S. invasion following 9/11, and most importantly has little urgency to conclude a deal. This means that any entity—even one like Pakistan that has close ties to the Taliban, and considerable leverage over it—will struggle to get the insurgents to agree to American demands.

Similarly, Washington wants Islamabad to take irreversible steps against terrorist groups in Pakistan that target both Afghanistan and India. It has not been satisfied with Pakistan’s recent crackdowns, which have involved the arrests of dozens of militants. But on reality, it is hard to imagine Pakistan completely dismantling the entire infrastructure of extremism within its borders—that is, prosecuting and convicting top terrorist leaders and permanently shutting down their organizations’ vast networks. That is because Islamabad continues to harbor a strong interest in maintaining ties to certain militant groups, such as the Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Taiba, which it views as key assets to help pursue its interests in Afghanistan and to deploy against India.

Third, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship remains beset by tensions rooted in fundamental policy differences. Despite recent bumps in its ties with India, Washington remains committed to forging a deep, strategic partnership with New Delhi, Pakistan’s bitter enemy. Similarly, Islamabad is closely allied with China, Washington’s top strategic rival. In effect, Washington and Islamabad enjoy deep partnerships with each other’s main adversary—a geopolitical reality that constrains closer U.S.-Pakistan cooperation.

Indeed, hypothetical scenarios that could actually boost bilateral ties—such as Washington scaling down its ties with India and easing up on pressuring Islamabad to detain terrorists who target India, or Islamabad pivoting away from Beijing—are not in the offing. More broadly, each country pursues foreign policy objectives throughout Asia that go against the other’s interests: Pakistan seeks to limit the influence of India, while the U.S. is pursuing an Indo-Pacific strategy that is meant to push back against China.

Finally, the Trump administration does not support the type of diplomacy that one would expect to see in a rebooted relationship. It prioritizes bursts of transactional diplomacy over sustained and formal dialogue. In effect, there’s no going back to the early years of the Obama administration, when the two sides launched an albeit short-lived strategic dialogue focused on a variety of topics, not all of them security-related. The Trump administration simply isn’t interested in investing the resources in such broad and extended exchanges, which, if they were to take place, could go a long way toward generating more confidence and goodwill for a relationship that badly needs new infusions of both, even after Khan’s positive visit.

The bottom line is that while Khan’s trip to Washington may have been full of smiles and good vibes, and it may have even solidified U.S.-Pakistan cooperation in Afghanistan, it shouldn’t be mistaken for a reset in troubled ties. This newfound comity can’t mask the reality that U.S.-Pakistan relations are still in need of major repair.

Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

The article was published in World Politics Review on 26 July 2019

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