Pompeo visit to Pakistan: Difficult job of mending ties

Alwaght – The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a visit to Pakistan on Wednesday. The visit was short but drew the media attention, mainly because a new government is now in Islamabad following the July 25 parliamentary election in which, to everybody’s surprise, the largely isolated Tahreek-e Insaf Party led by Imran Khan won the majority amid frost hitting the US-Pakistan relations.

What is Pompeo’s goal?

Before his trip to Pakistan, Pompeo said he welcomed Imran Khan’s comments about attempts to mend ties with Washington, saying the relationship between the two countries should be “reset”. It appears that despite the deepening gaps, the latest of which caused by the US suspension of $300 million in aids to Pakistan, Washington counts on Islamabad role to help realize its objectives in the region. Afghanistan is the key area where the Americans need the Pakistani assistance.

Pakistan provides the closest route for logistical support to the Afghanistan-based US forces. The Americans send forces and military equipment to the Afghan battlegrounds via Pakistan’s air and ground.

Another area of need for cooperation with the Pakistani government is the newly-adopted strategy of direct negotiations with the Taliban. In mid-July, the Taliban demanded face-to-face talks to the Americans, something Trump approved of by ordering senior American diplomats to hold meetings with the militant group’s representatives in Doha, Qatar.

The White House finds Pakistan a sway holder in Afghanistan and thus a player with great capabilities to push forward the peace negotiations with the militants. Islamabad has always rejected military action as a solution to Afghanistan crisis, insisting that dialogue is the most productive option.

Another reason for Pompeo to seek to relax the tensions with Islamabad is a need for the Pakistani government and army to continue their crackdown on the militant groups inside the country with potential risks to the US interests. The US is concerned that Islamabad may avoid fighting these groups. In November 2017, the Congress tied a $350 million aid package to Pakistan to the government’s confrontation of Haqqani Network, an anti-American militant group in Pakistan.

Pompeo also sought to prevent further Pakistan closeness to China and Russia. The trip came ahead of a visit to India, trying to make it clear to Islamabad that Washington is committed to a balance between Pakistan and India as two regional powers. A more accurate message could be that if Pakistan complies with the US policies in West and Central Asia, the financial and military aids could reflow.

Obstacles to return to the strategic alliance

Despite the Secretary of State’s expression of optimism about the improvement of ties with Islamabad, the level of the current chill is too high to allow a return to the previous warm relations.

Although Imran Khan called for “trustworthy” ties with the US, in the country’s politics, he is recognized as a figure opposing the American policy and intervention. He made that clear during his campaigning speeches. To Pompeo’s frustration, the remarks of Pakistan’s new PM reflect a tendency to boost ties with the neighbors and cut US influence in his country. The PM has a backing from the military which is extremely angry with Trump measures.

Under President Donald Trump, the US took a policy of reducing the financial and military aids to the allies. Over the past five decades of bilateral ties bear witness to the fact that their closeness or remoteness is balanced by the amount of the US aids to Pakistan. Two periods marked a peak in the American-Pakistani cooperation. First, during the 1980s, when the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan and Washington with Islamabad help created the Taliban in its opposition. And the second, during the US invasion of Afghanistan in the early 2000s. In both periods, abundant US military and financial aid flowed to Pakistan. In 2009, the Congress suspended a five-year aid program worth of $7.5 billion to Islamabad. The Pakistani officials argue that the aids were cost of their country’s fight against terrorism.

In Afghanistan, despite the fact that the Americans have given green light to direct peace talks with the Taliban, their practices never match their words. Over the past year, the US increased its forces in Afghanistan and expanded its operations across the country. The issue can even affect Pakistan’s national security as some Taliban factions are settling on the Pakistani soil.

The US, on the other side, works on a project to transfer ISIS terrorist group from Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan, something drawing strong Islamabad opposition. To address the challenge, the security officials from Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan in a rare meeting met in early July to discuss ways to counter looming ISIS danger in Afghanistan and Central Asia. While the US tends to allow further regional destabilization and opposes regional pro-security partnership, Pakistan heads to join new regional alliances. Over the past few months, the Pakistani security and military officials visited Iran, Russia, and Turkey in quest of alternative partners.

The US request for resetting the relationship with Pakistan comes while Washington apparently prefers New Delhi, Islamabad’s archrival and archenemy, as a strategic partner to Pakistan. Giving India a weight in the regional equations, like Afghanistan case, instead of Pakistan, comes with the final purpose of strengthening New Delhi in the face of Beijing. Pakistan, in response, seeks to coalesce with China to fill the place of the withheld US aids. Islamabad shows a strong interest in the China-led “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which eyes ancient Silk Road revival. The country also joined the China-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2017.