On his maiden visit to the United States in December 2023, General Syed Asim Munir, Pakistan’s chief of Army Staff (COAS), was greeted with red-carpet treatment from key government and defense officials, from Secretary of State Antony Blinken to General Michael Erik Kurilla, chief of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), among others. These high-level visits reaffirmed Pakistan’s status as a major non-NATO ally and sparked discussions about a positive reset in Pakistan-U.S. ties.
In 2024, keeping up with the spirit of continuity, Pakistan’s interim foreign minister, while meeting with the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, emphasized “building on the recent exchanges and the momentum gained in bilateral ties.”
A Marriage of Necessity
Following the hasty U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, Islamabad’s strategic relevance within Washington’s strategic calculus diminished. The Pakistani establishment’s initial jubilation with the takeover soon dissipated, as an ensconced Taliban government in Afghanistan had emboldened the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Pakistan’s deadliest terror group, which seeks to overthrow the Pakistani state and impose Shariah, or Islamic law.
Today, the United States is putting more onus on developing the non-traditional facets of the relationship, which had long been ignored or remained nascent at best, while Pakistan is keen on reviving the traditional security aspect, especially in the face of a burgeoning TTP threat.
Previously, U.S. drone strikes were paramount in paralyzing the top brass of the TTP, exemplified by the killing of Baitullah Mehsud, the first leader of the Pakistani Taliban in 2009 and his successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, in 2013. To that end, an interim minister in Pakistan, following a terrorist attack in December 2023 orchestrated by a faction of the TTP, had suggested offering the U.S. drone bases to target militant sanctuaries in Afghanistan. During Munir’s visit, reports surfaced that the United States denied his request for military assistance to counter the TTP, despite Pakistan’s attempts at portraying the TTP as a global threat, capable of imperiling the U.S. homeland. It should be noted that the Pakistani Taliban had, in fact, taken credit for a failed bomb explosion in New York’s Times Square in 2010.
However, it would be myopic to think the intent and scope for traditional security cooperation between the two have shrunk, for Pakistan will remain indelibly tied to Washington’s regional security objectives. The killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qaida chief, in 2022 by a precise U.S. drone strike in Kabul couldn’t have taken place without Pakistan’s assistance in two forms – intelligence sharing and usage of Pakistan’s airspace.
The relationship between the TTP and al-Qaida, albeit cloaked, remains active. However, whether that would propel Washington to renew historic levels of security assistance to Islamabad will be contingent on how the U.S. perceives the TTP’s acts of terror. In November 2022, the U.S. State Department sanctioned the deputy leader of the TTP, Qari Amjad, along with three other al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) leaders. Before that, the previous U.S. sanctions against the TPP had come in 2019, targeting Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, the TTP’s current emir. Last year, Thomas West, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, remarked that the TTP poses the “greatest threat” to the stability of the region and earlier this year, conveyed the importance of “concerted efforts to eliminate the group inside Afghanistan”.
Furthermore, the possibility of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal or its technological know-how falling into the hands of terrorists and other rogue elements has persistently been a cause of concern for the U.S. administration, the echoes of which can still be heard today in the corridors of power. President Joe Biden, in a 2022 speech, retorted that “Pakistan is one of the most dangerous nations in the world because it has nuclear weapons without any cohesion.” Over a decade ago, then-President Barack Obama had said that “the single biggest threat to the U.S., both short term, medium term and long term, would be the possibility of a terrorist organization obtaining a nuclear weapon.” Bearing this in mind along with the TTP’s heightened ability to attack high-value military installations, regional security and defense cooperation may figure increasingly in all bilateral engagements.
In September 2022, the Biden administration approved a $450 million package for the sustainment of Pakistan’s F-16 fleet in a bid to better supplement Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts. This marked the largest security assistance since the Trump administration’s decision to suspend military aid to Pakistan in 2018. Almost a year later, both renewed the Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CIS-MOA), originally signed in 2005 for 15 years. This renewal is expected to facilitate Pakistan’s acquisition of sophisticated military hardware from the U.S., signaling a fresh momentum in their defense ties.
The Afghanistan-U.S.-Pakistan Nexus
Afghanistan and threats emanating from therein will remain a mutual concern for both countries, but given the past trust deficit – Pakistan’s duplicitous policy of covertly sheltering the Taliban while overtly promising to help the United States with its “War on Terror” – Washington’s inclination to cooperate may not begin on an optimistic note. This is particularly pronounced as the Af-Pak region has taken a backseat amid the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Gaza, and Washington’s focus on the Indo-Pacific theater, which is aimed at containing China.
However, considering Pakistan’s reluctance to advocate for the Taliban government internationally due to the latter’s unwillingness to rein in the TTP, a sphere of convergence between Islamabad and Washington on the Taliban challenge may emerge. Pakistan is now opposing the Taliban the way Washington had desired during its 20 years of fight in Afghanistan. As a corollary effect, the U.S. State Department has exhorted the Afghan Taliban to uphold its Doha commitments, i.e., not letting Afghan soil be used for international terrorism, while concurrently affirming Pakistan’s right to self-defense against terrorism.
Since the 1979 Soviet invasion, Afghanistan has been a crucial, almost enduring aspect of the Pakistan-U.S. relationship. Although both are keen on diversifying their areas of engagement, preserving that component in their bilateral ties, while being cautious of not restricting themselves to it, would prove more beneficial in meeting the challenges (regarding the humanitarian catastrophe that has engulfed Afghanistan) than entirely de-hyphenating it from the equation. After all, economic growth, internal stability and security in Pakistan are, by and large, dependent on Afghanistan, for they are “conjoined twins,” in the words of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Pivot to the Non-Traditional Domain
The Pakistan-U.S. relationship had been transactional and hamstrung for decades. The United States viewed Pakistan as an arm in its counterterrorism efforts, while Pakistan used the resultant aid to develop its military capabilities as a deterrent against India. Blinded by these preoccupations, both failed to establish and value a relationship that extended beyond the security paradigm and, consequently, encountered recurring challenges.
However, amid great geopolitical churn, both have demonstrated a willingness to pivot from the erstwhile security-related priorities, making strides in various domains, especially on the non-traditional front. This aligns not only with Pakistan’s frequent declarations of transitioning from geopolitics to geoeconomics but also with the current world order, where geoeconomics has assumed salience in statecraft.
In the wake of the 2022 floods in Pakistan, which inundated one-third of the country, the United States responded promptly, providing aid in various forms, and to date, continues to roll out funds as part of the flood recovery efforts, which now amounts to more than $200 billion. This is in tandem with the broader U.S.-Pakistan Climate and Environment Working Group (CEWG) and the Green Alliance Framework. The latter, which seeks to advance cooperation in climate change, renewable energy, and sustainable agriculture, all while promoting inclusive economic growth in Pakistan, is touted to color the future of Pakistan-U.S. relations.
Moreover, the United States remains Pakistan’s largest export market and, with their bilateral trade volume standing at $12 billion, both continue to expand trade and investment ties under the U.S.-Pakistan Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA).
While the rhetoric of putting more onus on economic and people-to-people ties is noteworthy and, when matched with action, has the potential to forge a comprehensive bilateral relationship, the primacy of robust security ties cannot be understated. A primary goal of the current pivot is to expand Pakistan’s market to U.S. investors; however, against the backdrop of heightened terrorist activity in Pakistan, the confidence of investors may be rattled.
The non-traditional aspects of Pakistan-U.S. relations, such as propping up a stable economy through trade and investment, reforming education, and addressing climate change, will go a long way in addressing the root causes of extremism in Pakistan. But that is true only as long as they’re complemented with security collaboration, as a perpetually uncertain and hostile environment can adversely impact the progress made in those areas, and have a destabilizing effect on the South Asian region. Having said that, it is indeed a refreshingly positive development for both sides to broaden the length and breadth of their relations, which carry the potential of yielding long-term gains.