US – Pakistan Relations: A Marriage of Inconvenience

This article is the latest in a series we are producing in partnership Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute that features the voices of experts and advocates from countries affected by U.S. national security policies. Earlier pieces in this series are here.

Relations between Pakistan and the United States appear to be at an all-time low. In his first tweet of the New Year, President Trump accused Pakistan of “deception, lies and of providing safe haven to terrorists.” Just a few days later, the U.S. government declared that it would suspend all aid to Pakistan, including military assistance until Pakistan’s military takes action against the Taliban and ‘militant’ Haqqani network. In February, the U.S. forwarded a motion, also backed by European nations, to place Pakistan on a global terrorism financing watch-list.

These U.S. threats are nothing new. Relations between the U.S. and Pakistan were also acrimonious under the Obama administration and previous articles in Just Security suggest that efforts to pressure Pakistan will not have any lasting impact on Washington’s influence over Islamabad. The recent spat between these two troubled allies is however part of a deeper rift — a divide that is only widening under the Trump administration. Over time, repeated threats from the United States have pushed Pakistan to look to China and Iran for assistance — a move that will likely have serious and long-term ramifications for rights protections and security in the region.

The latest U.S. drone strike deepens the spat

The rising tension between the two countries was heightened on January 24, when Pakistan condemned a suspected U.S. drone strike in the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. After a lull in such attacks in recent years, the January 24 strike marked the second suspected U.S. strike in Pakistan in early 2018, and served as a reminder that the not-so-secret U.S. drone war in the country could return. The Pakistani government is not alone in criticizing U.S. drone strikes: Analysts have repeatedly raised concerns about whether U.S. strikes comply with international human rights and humanitarian law, about the secrecy of U.S. strikes in Pakistan, and the number of alleged civilian casualties.

While U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan are nothing new, the discord shown in the two governments’ responses to the January attack was. The Pakistani government issued an extremely sharp rebuke of the U.S., where the Foreign Office claimed the U.S. directly targeted an Afghan refugee camp. The Foreign Office’s response was not surprising, even if it was more forceful than normal. For years, Pakistani civilian officials have publicly complained about drone strikes on Pakistani territory but privately might have endorsed the campaign. What was unprecedented, however, was the unusually robust response from the Pakistan Army’s media wing – the Inter-Services Public Relations – which publicly confirmed the Foreign Office’s position and condemned the attack for targeting a refugee camp housing civilians. Up until then, the U.S. had reportedly been operating under the tacit and secret consent of the military and intelligence.

The Trump administration’s response to these statements was also uncharacteristically forceful: Historically, the U.S. government has almost never issued a diplomatic response to Pakistan’s criticisms over drone strikes, yet this time around it flatly rejected the Pakistani claim as “false.” Diplomatic contestations between friendly nations almost always focus on positing respective state positions rather than directly refuting one another; the US statement was unprecedented and harsh in both tone and content. Recent public statements are a sign of a widening trust deficit between the U.S. and the all-powerful Pakistani military which wields significant political and economic influence in Pakistan.

Shifting alliances

Historically, U.S.-Pakistan relations can be described as a marriage of convenience. While the relationship has been strained on numerous occasions, the national security interests of both nations have usually converged, primarily for geopolitical reasons. However, changing geopolitical imperatives have meant that the dynamics of the relations are beginning to devolve.

In the last decade, the United States has warmed up to India, while continuing to criticize Pakistan over its involvement in Afghanistan. Pakistani security and political actors are deeply distrustful of growing U.S. closeness with India, viewing the collaboration as at odds with Pakistan’s own national security interests. The advent of an openly conservative, isolationist, and Islamophobic U.S. administration, one that openly abandons liberal ideals and views international, cultural, religious, and social differences with suspicion, has further alienated Pakistan from the United States.

Geopolitical shifts in the Middle East are also affecting alliances within South Asia. A conservative regime in India has cemented closer ties with Israel which has pushed Iran, a traditional Indian ally, to drastically, improve its relations with Pakistan. For example in August 2017 Iran was also the first nation to rebuke the United States over its initial criticisms of Pakistan and came to its support when Pakistan’s traditional Arab allies remained silent. At the same time, Pakistan is engaged in concerted efforts to improve its relations with Russia, a country with which it maintained frosty relations throughout the Cold War.

Over time, decision-makers in Pakistan have begun to believe that previous attempts to appease the United States at all costs have only resulted in Pakistan losing out; and that Pakistan’s efforts would have been better spent concentrating on improving relations with hostile neighbors such as India and Afghanistan – independent of any U.S. involvement. Put differently: there is a growing sense within Pakistan that preserving relations with the U.S. has only worked against Pakistan’s own interests, a feeling which has generated significant antipathy towards the U.S. within Pakistan.

The Impact of Chinese investment in Pakistan

This sentiment is compounded by China’s evolving relationship with Pakistan, which has weakened U.S. influence in Pakistan. Chinese investment is pouring into Pakistan. Through the Chinese Pakistan Economic Corridor (“CPEC”), – a Chinese mega-project in Pakistan – China has invested over $60 billion U.S. dollars in the development of Pakistan’s infrastructure. This initiative will lead to massive, unprecedented levels of commercialization within Pakistan, and is cementing ties between the two states. China has also come to Pakistan’s defense in the wake of U.S. threats to cut military aid. The United States imposed sanctions on Pakistan after it conducted nuclear weapons tests in May 1998.  As U.S. military aid dried up, Islamabad turned to China for military assistance.

Chinese investment has also had the unintended effect of providing a sense of internal and external security. The Pakistani military believes that both the United States and India would hesitate to undermine Pakistan’s sovereignty by engaging in purported counterterrorism operations once Chinese investment becomes entrenched in the country. This is especially true in the border or restive territories such as in Kashmir, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Baluchistan – areas that have historically borne the brunt of U.S. drone strikes or attacks from India.

Impact on human rights and security in the region

Chinese investment may mean that US drone strikes and India’s shelling and incursions into Pakistani-controlled Kashmir would stop. However, at what long-term price?

The Pakistani military has unanimously decided to protect the CPEC project at all costs, vowing to treat any threats to the project with an “iron fist.” Human rights defenders within Pakistan fear that Pakistan’s approach to preserving security on the CPEC project may come at the cost of violating the rights of civilians affected by conflict, indigenous groups displaced by CPEC-related projects, and the rights of farmer and laborer communities at large. In warming to China, Pakistan risks trading in one “bad ally” for another and in the process has become a ruthless neoliberal Chinese client state where the open and systematic disregard for civil, political, and economic freedoms of its own population will only worsen. Unfortunately, one can already see the symptoms of this transformation underway. The Pakistani state is becoming more suspicious of indigenous communities, as well as international and local human rights groups and community based associations for being linked to initiatives that genuinely focus on protecting the political and social rights of vulnerable groups and individuals because it associates these groups with former U.S. rule of law and human rights initiatives. These programs are now being viewed with suspicion as fronts to achieve other ulterior objectives merely due to their work in safeguarding human rights and upholding the rule of law, concepts historically associated with a liberal United States.

What should the United States do?

The U.S. is in a hard place, but further bullying from Washington is unlikely to work. Any criticism by the United States over Pakistan’s human rights situation will only fan local perception that the U.S. is using human rights as a pretext to advance its own geostrategic interests and drive it to further align with China, Iran, or Russia. The road to improved relations will be long, and requires careful diplomacy and investment in Pakistan to offset China’s economic and military influence. 

About the Author(s)

Sikander Ahmed Shah

Professor of Public International Law at Lahore University of Management Sciences, will analyze the deteriorating relationship between the United States and Pakistan, and what that means for stability and human rights in the region.