Returning to normalcy?

Last week, the Biden Administration approved the potential sale of equipment for the upgrade of Pakistan’s F-16 fleet to strengthen its forces in the ongoing counterterrorism efforts. Lockheed Martin Corporation will be the principal contractor for the sale valued at an estimated $450 million. The Defence Security Cooperation Agency, which delivered the required certification notifying Congress of this possible sale, however, clarified that the proposed sale of the aircraft does not include any new capabilities, weapons or munitions. In April this year, COAS Qamar Javed Bajwa stated the country enjoyed “excellent” relations with the US and that the best military equipment Pakistan had was from Washington. This is the first major security-related assistance to Pakistan from Washington after former president Donald Trump had declared ending security assistance to Pakistan in 2018 alleging that Islamabad was not taking tangible actions against militants. The move is believed to be another thaw in the strained relationship which went through multiple ups and downs in recent months.
Before his ouster through VONC, former Prime Minister Imran Khan alleged that the US hatched a regime change conspiracy to topple his government, a claim which remains unproved to date. Yet the public shaming of the US by Imran Khan put diplomatic circles in an awkward position and the incoming government on a challenging rapprochement adventure. Islamabad’s reconciliation drive earned gradual success when the US vowed to work closely with the new government followed by foreign secretary Antony Blinken’s invitation to Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari to attend a ministerial meeting on the “Global Food Security Call to Action” at the UN headquarters in May. As the devastating floods wreaked havoc in one-third of Pakistan, the United States announced $30 million in humanitarian assistance to support the people affected by severe flooding. Two weeks later, the US announced an additional $20 million in support, making the country the leading contributor so far with a total of $50.1 million pledged. Meanwhile, the US Central Command, in support of USAID, began airlifting life-saving humanitarian supplies into Pakistan to support the majority of those who have fled their homes and resided in makeshift shelters. Lately, there has been a flurry of high-profile visits by US officials to Pakistan in an ostensible effort to reset ties. In August, the US military’s top commander, Army Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla, visited Pakistan and acknowledged the country’s “commendable efforts in the fight against terrorism” and its “efforts [to promote] regional peace and stability,” according to an ISPR press release. In May, the new US Ambassador to Pakistan Donald Blome assumed charge becoming the first full-time ambassador to Pakistan after four years. Since his arrival, Mr Blome has taken up several trips to parts of Pakistan including KPK and Sindh. Ambassador’s multi-city stopovers and meetings with top civil and military leadership as well as with leading businessmen speak volumes of Uthe S’ keenness to resuming normal bilateral engagements. His engagements with top Pakistani leadership paved way for more visits by US officials to Pakistan including US Congressional delegation (CODEL), State Department Counselor Derek H Chollet and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Elizabeth Horst. According to some reports, the US put its weight behind the IMF for restoring the long overdue programme with Pakistan without which the country was heading towards imminent economic disaster.
Resetting ties was a win-win situation for both Islamabad and Washington as, despite the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan remains vital for US regional policy goals. The two sides have several common objectives ranging from counter-terrorism and blocking the resurgence of Al-Qaeda or ISIS in Afghanistan to mitigating climate change threats and preventing cyber-attacks on sensitive installations. However, the US should make sure that the normalcy of ties with Pakistan must not come at the cost of China as the latter has facilitated Pakistan in multiple ways and stood by the country when it faced regional and global isolation. Derek Chollet’s statement in an interview during the Pakistan tour that the “US doesn’t ask Pakistan to choose between it and China” is a good omen in this regard. The Biden administration must also engage with Pakistan beyond the Afghanistan angle since Pakistan is not just a part of the US’ two-decades-long war in Afghanistan but equally helped the US in its startling pull out from there last year. Pakistan on the other hand must be looking to reset ties which were jeopardised by the outgoing government. All the US financial aid, humanitarian relief and high-profile figures touring Pakistan are not merely meant to appease Pakistan but are part of wider US desires to be reckoned a friendly state inside Pakistan and to promote a soft image as the USAID Administrator Samantha Power while supervising the aid delivery process hoped that the US assistance will help reset perceptions of the United States in Pakistan. This opens up avenues for cooperation between the two countries and now is the best time to take advantage of this opportunity as both countries are celebrating the 75th anniversary of bilateral relations.

Dr Ameena Tanvir

The writer has completed a PhD in South Asian Studies from the University of Punjab. She tweets @AmeenaTanvir.

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