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An Emerging Disconnect in U.S.-Pakistan Relations

Michael Kugelman

The little that Pakistani officials have said about their hopes for the relationship is unlikely to find much sympathy with the next administration.

When one thinks of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, numerous adjectives—none of them terribly positive—come to mind: Volatile. Complex. Transactional.

Perhaps one of the most apt terms, however, is a noun: Disconnect. Due to frequent mismatches in expectations and interests, the two sides are often not on the same page about key policy issues—despite considerable cooperation during the Cold War and in the post-9/11 era, and most recently on the Afghan peace process.

Historical examples abound. Think of approaches to counterterrorism, perceptions of India and China, and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, among others.

With the Joe Biden administration now in office, another disconnect is emerging—one that threatens to affect the relationship on the whole. Islamabad has signaled its expectations for U.S.-Pakistan relations in the Biden era. What it has said so far is unlikely to find much sympathy with the new administration.

Islamabad’s messaging falls into three categories. First, there have been calls for the Biden administration to view Pakistan through an economic lens—a country that can serve as a critical node for investment, commerce, and connectivity. Second, Pakistani officials have expressed hope that the next administration will pursue more balanced relationships with Islamabad and New Delhi. And third, Islamabad has signaled its desire for Washington to take more of an interest in the Kashmir dispute and to pressure New Delhi to curtail its repressive acts in Kashmir.

Islamabad’s calls for Washington to view Pakistan through a geoeconomic, rather than a geopolitical, lens have become more prominent just in recent weeks.

The second and third categories of messaging have been heard for years. The first has become increasingly common in more recent times, and especially since the launching of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. But Islamabad’s calls for Washington to view Pakistan through a geoeconomic, rather than a geopolitical, lens have become more prominent just in recent weeks. Moeed Yusuf, a top advisor to Prime Minister Imran Khan, made this pitch in an Asia Program conversation I hosted with him in January. Pakistan’s most powerful figure, Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, delivered a similar message in a speech in Islamabad last month. 

Alas, the Biden administration is unlikely to be receptive to any of these categories of messaging in a big way.

Islamabad isn’t wrong to push for a more economics-focused U.S.-Pakistan partnership. Bilateral trade has been a quiet success story in recent years, with new records achieved in trade volume. With America drawing down in Afghanistan, now is the time to identify new anchors for a relationship that in Washington has long been viewed through the lens of Afghanistan.

However, the Biden administration—like its predecessor—will be wary of Pakistan’s investment climate, which has long raised red flags in Washington due to insufficient enabling legislation, taxation issues, red tape, and so on. Additionally, the Biden administration—again like its predecessor—will view Beijing as a strategic rival, and it won’t have an interest in aligning itself with investment and connectivity projects in a country that is a close ally of China. The Biden administration is more likely to work with allies and partners in Asia to develop connectivity and other development projects that push back against China.

Additionally, the Biden administration will have little interest in bringing more balance to its relations with Islamabad and New Delhi. There is strong, bipartisan support in Washington for deepening security partnership with India, mainly due to shared concern about China. The momentum in U.S.-India relations from the Trump years won’t abate in the Biden era—and especially because so many of those that will serve on high levels in the coming administration (including Biden himself) are longtime advocates of U.S.-India partnership.

The Biden White House will be keen to ensure a workable relationship with Islamabad, especially for cooperation on Afghan reconciliation and shared threats like ISIS. However, the dynamics of close China-Pakistan and U.S.-India partnership preclude substantive expansion in U.S.-Pakistan ties, especially in the security realm.

Perhaps the most vivid example so far of Washington’s hesitation to expand its relationship with Islamabad is the White House’s decision late last month not to include Pakistan in a global climate change summit later this month. Even though it has one of the world’s largest populations and is one of the world’s most climate vulnerable countries, Khan was not one of the 40 world leaders to be invited.

For years, U.S. governments have applied a narrow lens to Pakistan framed through hard security issues and Afghanistan.

As I wrote for The Third Pole, Pakistan’s exclusion wasn’t necessarily a deliberate snub—it was more of “an unfortunate oversight, attributable to how Washington orients its relationship with Islamabad. For years, U.S. governments have applied a narrow lens to Pakistan framed through hard security issues and Afghanistan.” That lens, to Islamabad’s chagrin, has remained firmly in place during the Biden administration’s first few months in power. 

The perceived imperative of U.S.-India partnership means that Pakistan’s third hope for the Biden administration—that it push India on the Kashmir issue—will be dashed. The Biden team has vowed to promote democracy and human rights abroad, but it will go easy on India, given its reluctance to rock the boat with a critical partner. Perhaps the only scenario under which one could envision the Biden administration pushing back against India’s policies in Kashmir is if New Delhi were to initiate a provocation, or military action, in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. For the most part, the Biden administration will view Kashmir like most previous U.S. administrations have—a bilateral issue to be worked out by India and Pakistan (even Trump, it should be recalled, offered to mediate the Kashmir dispute only if both countries asked him to do so).

This isn’t to suggest the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is destined to fall apart during the Biden era. So long as Washington is engaged in the Afghan peace process, it will want to continue to partner with Islamabad. There will also be numerous non-security areas ripe for cooperation—including energy, public health, and IT, especially if driven by each country’s private sector, academia, and other non-government interlocutors.  And indeed climate change—a top priority for both the Khan and Biden governments—should be revisited as an area for collaboration.

The U.S.-Pakistan strategic dialogue—an initiative of Biden’s former boss Barack Obama—may be a thing of the past, but this doesn’t mean there can’t be sustained cooperation on a broad array of issues, albeit through more unofficial and less structured channels.

Still, despite this real potential for cooperation, messaging from Islamabad since Biden’s election victory suggests a looming disconnect. Pakistan is articulating expectations for its relationship with the Biden administration that are likely to be misplaced.

Michael Kugelman is Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. He is on Twitter @michaelkugelman.

The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2020, Asia Program. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Michael Kugelman

Michael Kugelman

Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia
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Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more