Pakistan and US officials continue to trade statements elaborating and reiterating their position on the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project. Meanwhile, the NATO Afghan supply routes has remained suspended and the results of Pakistan’s policy review, initiated in the aftermath of the NATO Mohmand attack last November, will be announced in the coming weeks. While publicly Pakistan has maintained that its relations with US is on hold till the completion of the policy review, behind the scenes officials of both countries have continued to meet.
On the military side, US CENTCOM chief is expected to visit this month. Reportedly, General James Mattis will be holding talks with General Kayani and the agenda is likely to include the role of Pakistan in Afghan reconciliation, the fight against extremists, resuming of supply lines, and Iran. It is also possible that US will deliver a formal apology, although Pakistan now claims it has never asked for one. As the date of NATO’s eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan approaches, these routes have taken on an added emphasis. As far as the matters of intelligence cooperation are concerned, the appointment Lt Gen Zaheer-ul slam as the new director general of ISI can be interpreted as an attempt to make a fresh start.
On the civilian side, Hillary Clinton and Hina Rabbani Khar also recently got together in London. Ambassador Munter just returned to Pakistan after discussions in Washington while Sherry Rehman was in Islamabad to do the same. The comments coming out from both sides do not reflect any change, rather they reflect a reiteration of the same, with a commitment to better the ties. In fact, the areas of differences appear to be widening.
Hina Rabbani Khar has stated that Pakistan plans to go ahead with projects with Iran, and the nation will not succumb to any external pressure in this regard. Khar added that Iran and Pakistan have developed a roadmap for cooperation and collaboration in the domains of energy, connectivity and trade. Hillary Clinton had earlier warned on invoking the Iran Sanctions Act, if Pakistan proceeds with the project. US Secretary of State stated recently that US is also having a “very intense and very blunt” conversations with India, China and Turkey on reducing their dependence on Iranian oil. She said the American “expectation and the direction” is to “see significant reductions”. India constitutes 12 percent while China makes up 22 percent of Iran’s total export.
Clearly, one of the emerging emphases of Pakistan’s new policy is the focus on regionalism. To some extent, the motivation behind this approach is the feeling of being excluded from the US dominated Afghan reconciliation process. The February trilateral summit between Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran was an outcome of this sentiment amongst the regional players. Commenting recently on trade liberalization with India, Khar emphasized Pakistan’s commitment to economic development. She said, “The aim of Pakistan is to work the geo-economics of this region in our advantage rather than our disadvantage because Pakistan has always been a supporter of regional connectivity and enhancement.”
The obvious question that develops is what happens to US-Pakistan relations as a result of this approach. There is an apparent tension between the regional approaches adopted by Pakistan with that of the US. Up to this point, Pakistan’s position on Afghanistan and Iran were mostly defined by its relations to the US. As the Afghan war nears a defining stage, that principle no longer seems valid, and this has further complicated the state of affairs.
With the shift to regionalism, the goal of Pakistan is likely to impress upon US its essential role in Afghan reconciliation. On the other hand, the US probably wants to demonstrate that it can resolve the Afghan quagmire without involving the regional players, and in this manner extract cooperation from the resistant regional stakeholders. In the present regional geopolitical environment, regionalism can only triumph if there is a common purpose and trust amongst local players, which is not there. However, it is the regional players that have the staying power, and for a viable long-term solution, the local actors would have to be involved.
The relations between countries are increasingly dependent on their ability to find areas of shared interests and cooperation while avoiding confrontation. In all likelihood, this trend will also characterize the future of US-Pakistan relations. The worsening economic prospects in many parts of the world are making it harder and harder for nations to keep cooperating as nationalist feeling surge. And, this pattern is likely to continue as long as the global balance of power is in transition.