Skip to main content

Event Recap - U.S.-Pakistan Relations in the Biden Era: A Conversation with Moeed Yusuf

One day after the inauguration of President Biden, Michael Kugelman of the Asia Program hosted Moeed Yusuf, Pakistan's national security advisor and special assistant on national security and strategic policy planning, to discuss the future of US-Pakistan relations.

Yusuf started the discussion by laying out his fundamental goal of the Pakistan-U.S. relationship—one that he described as being truly bilateral, candid and honest. While there have been hiccups and mistrust in recent years, he said, the Biden administration provides an opportunity for a fresh start. However, Yusuf stressed the need to view Pakistan as it is in the present, and not to view it from the same lens that this administration did in 2016. He highlighted two major differences that make it illogical for both sides to start off from where the Trump administration did earlier: A changed world, and a shift in Pakistan’s vision.

Firstly, Yusuf highlighted how the world is completely different now from what it was in 2016. The predominant conversation previously was Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan and how to establish peace in the region through dialogue, whereas now Pakistan’s work is done in ensuring peace talks. He also highlighted the calmer situation within Pakistan, where terrorism is no longer the behemoth it once was. Additionally, the situation in India today is much different, as it is embroiled in intolerance, major discrimination, serious internal tensions, and human right concerns. Yusuf asserted that India is heavily destabilizing the region, and that the United States using India as a counterweight to China is no longer possible because it is a much different India than it was in 2016.

Secondly, Yusuf suggested that the United States is dealing with a very different Pakistan now. Pakistan’s formal vision is now squarely in an economic security paradigm, where it is talking about its geo-economic location and not its geo-strategic location. This economic security paradigm will focus on connectivity through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, peace in Afghanistan, and a focus on development partnerships, instead of development assistance. He stressed the desire of Pakistan to serve as an economic base for the developed world, instead of as a military base. He suggested that speaking to this renewed economic-centric Pakistan about only terrorism and Afghanistan misses the mark completely.

Yusuf was clear in maintaining that Pakistan belongs to no particular camp. He stressed how Pakistan is ultimately one of the very few countries that can serve as a confluence of interest on key areas for China and United States. Yusuf also underscored the need for Pakistan to focus on development partnerships, and on industrial cooperation through concessional export reprocessing. He said that Pakistan has the largest number of freelancers in the world, with low costs of IT production and great human capital that can serve as a key investment area for the Untied States. He also shed light on Pakistan’s issue with India, and the need to get to regional peace in a way that international law obligations are met by both sides.

Yusuf also called attention to the mode of engagement between United States and Pakistan, suggesting that there is no substitute for structured, high-level, track one dialogue. Having laid out where Pakistan stands on key issues, he stressed the need to have the United States offer its views in return so that a candid, bilateral relationship can begin.

When asked what Pakistan would do to reduce violence within Afghanistan, Yusuf emphasized the role that Pakistan has served in getting Afghans and United States to the negotiating table. He said that Pakistan is now no longer a part of that discussion, and while it would still do whatever is necessary to facilitate and push those negotiations, it cannot do much more. The dynamics of the negotiations in these situations are always organic and driven by the parties in the room, he said, and while external elements, such as Pakistan, can help bolster the process, the end decision has to come from the parties in the room.

Furthermore, when asked about Pakistan’s role in supporting counter terrorism strategies in Afghanistan, Yusuf stressed the shift in Pakistan’s priorities from military conversations to economic ones. He then went on to highlight how no one other than Pakistan has done more to eliminate Al-Qaeda. However, he said that while Pakistan is available to facilitate peace, it cannot serve as a potential solution for all problems, and the main reason for all evils when those solutions fail. He said that Pakistan wants to step away from these old conversations and wants to move into broadening its economic and commercial relations with Afghanistan and the world.

Yusuf stressed how even if Pakistan were to lose all leverage with the Unites States, it would want peace in Afghanistan.

Another point of discussion was Pakistan potentially losing leverage with the United States after the peace process in Afghanistan is over. To this point, Yusuf stressed how even if Pakistan were to lose all leverage with the Unites States, it would want peace in Afghanistan. Peace in Afghanistan helps Pakistan in terms of trade and regional stability. He stressed that for Pakistan, everything else pales in comparison in importance when it comes to stability on its western border. Furthermore, he shot down any likelihood of Pakistan developing relations with Israel, and said that Pakistan maintains a clear, principled stance on Palestine, which is identical to its stance on Kashmir. International law must be obeyed, and people must be given their rights, and in Palestine’s case, a respectable two-state solution exists which must be pursued.

Yusuf also sought to alleviate concerns regarding the investment climate in Pakistan. He pointed out how Western multinational companies who operate in Pakistan have made profits in factors of up to five times their global average, even during the peak years of security turmoil.

Yusuf was also questioned whether Pakistan is willing to take the necessary steps to convert from an electoral democracy into a meaningful democracy. In response, he brought up the Ehsaas cash transfer program—a social welfare initiative—and Pakistan’s fast approach toward universal healthcare coverage as examples of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s genuine desire to alleviate the problems of the country. In response to questions about the civil-military imbalance in Pakistan, Yusuf noted how the conversation in Pakistan is more democratic than most countries in the developing world. He said there is an atmosphere of extreme openness in Pakistan, where often traditional boundaries are crossed in criticizing those in power, but it is still allowed, as one would see in a meaningful democracy.

Yusuf addressed Pakistan’s stance on China’s persecution of Uighur Muslims. He reminded everyone that if the agenda is human rights, the first conversation that needs to happen is in Kashmir, and the human rights violations that have been occurring there for the last two years. He asked for governments to follow human rights and international law.

He also focused on the special relationship between Pakistan and China. Pakistan and China are transparent, he said, and they have conversations on each and every issue, where the resolution of conflicts occur in total confidence and not in front of the public. He maintained that for this reason, China’s persecution of Uighur Muslims is a non-issue, because there are already established channels between Pakistan and China to discuss the problem directly.

In conclusion, Moeed Yusuf stressed Pakistan’s desire to shift from its previous focus on anti-terrorism to a renewed focus on economic development, and a desire to form development partnerships. He focused on Pakistan’s investment climate, the blooming IT production, and increased emphasis on connectivity. He illuminated Pakistan’s viewpoints regarding relations with the United States, Afghanistan, China and Israel, and emphasized the human rights violations in Kashmir, with a call for stability in the region.

Follow the Asia Program on Twitter @AsiaProgram. or join us on Facebook.

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

Hibah Sheikh

Intern, Asia Program