Seeking Cooperation on the Islamabad-Washington Line

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While the United States of America (USA) implements its decision to withdraw from Afghanistan; It is not willing to allow developments that will pave a way for a space for actors such as Russia and China in the region. In this framework, the Washington administration is trying to establish military bases in countries located in the near abroad of Afghanistan and in a position to control the region. One of the countries that came to the fore with base discussions is Pakistan. Although Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi stated that the USA does not have an agenda to establish a base[1], the Taliban’s strong statement on this issue indicates that the said claim is among the issues discussed at the table.[2]

As it is known, Pakistan has been subjected to heavy criticism for its relations with the Taliban for many years. However, the point reached by the Afghan Peace Process is increasing the importance of Pakistan gradually. Because, it is understood that Pakistan is the only actor that can persuade the Taliban, which does not compromise in the negotiation processes and, in essence, desire to seize power by using violence after the withdrawal of the American elements, to sit at the table and to come to an open line of consensus. For this reason, it is understood that the Washington administration called Islamabad to take responsibility in the Afghan Peace Process and made an intense effort for this.

Considering Pakistan’s traditional strategy, it is not possible to say that it will look forward to the establishment of American bases. Qureshi’s statement confirms this. However, there are developments that point to the beginning of a spring period in the relations between Pakistan and the USA. The Taliban’s declaration can also be interpret as a preemptive effort stemming from seeing this process.

Although the rapprochement between the two countries is currently shaped around the Afghan Peace Process, the Islamabad administration states that it wants to develop a multidimensional cooperation with the United States. As a matter of fact, Moeed Yusuf, National Security Advisor of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who met with Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor of US President Joe Biden, stressed out that Islamabad wants to establish a comprehensive cooperation with Washington and also stated that this a rapprochement that will be limited to the Afghan Peace Process was regarded as insufficient in the eye of Pakistan.[3]

Yusuf’s explanations are quite notable. Because Pakistan’s desire to establish a comprehensive cooperation with the United States reveals that Islamabad’s foreign policy orientations may change in axis. Moreover, a possible change in this direction will not only be limited to Pakistan’s foreign policy, but will also differentiate the geopolitical balances in the Indo-Pacific region, which is one of the most significant playing fields of the global power struggle between the USA and China.

To explain the differentiation in question, it should be stated that in the current situation, Pakistan is located as an actor which is close to China. In this choice of Islamabad, the relations with India within the scope of the USA’s strategy of limiting China are determinant. Uneased by the rapprochement between India and the USA due to the Kashmir Issue, Islamabad turned to Beijing in foreign policy. Furthermore, Pakistan is in a strategic position in the Belt-Road Project that China has put forward to obtain its global goals. Because one of the most substantial economic corridors in the Belt-Road Project is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Therefore, Islamabad is a strategically important actor in the sight of Beijing.

Within the framework of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, Pakistan receives support from China for outstanding infrastructure and transportation projects. However, it is not possible to say that the support in question is unrequited. Because the Beijing administration has been increasing its soft power in Pakistan, as in many other countries of the world, through the low-interest and long-term loans it offers to Islamabad for use in various projects. This, in turn, may lead Pakistan, which has achieved significant economic gains in the short term, to feel unilaterally dependent on China in the medium and long term. In fact, Islamabad’s seeking for what can be described as the “US Opening” is closely related to the need to balance China. In this sense, Pakistan, which is trying to implement the natural gas pipeline project called “Pakistan Stream” with Russia; On the other hand, it paves a way to establish a multi-dimensional foreign policy by attempting to get closer to the USA. However, the Indian factor remains as a factor that will complicate the Pakistan-US rapprochement.

Overcoming the aforementioned obstacle will be possible by the evolution of the Kashmir Issue into the Kashmir Peace Process. The leak of the intelligence-level reunion to international press under the mediation of United Arab Emirates Which is the one of the US’s allies in the Gulf, revealed that there are some affords toward this intention.[4] Moreover, on March 23, 2021, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent a letter to his Pakistani counterpart, Imran Khan, congratulating the “Pakistan Independence Day”, in which he said,

“As a neighboring country, India desires cordial relations with the people of Pakistan.”[5] The use of the phrase also preserves its place in the memories. In his response to this letter, Khan said, “We believe that lasting peace and stability in South Asia depends on the resolution of all unresolved issues between India and Pakistan, especially the Kashmir Issue.” He showed that he gave the green light to the negotiation process. Therefore, it is possible that the meetings held at the intelligence level in the UAE will be moved to a new stage under the leadership of the USA in the upcoming period. Because for the US, winning Pakistan would be a heavy blow to the Chinese challenge and would allow the Washington administration to establish a clear superiority in the Indo-Pacific.

On the other hand, there is an element that will accelerate the rapprochement between Pakistan and the USA. Because the Iranian factor can bring the two countries together at common points. Because Iran’s sectarian-based strategy also includes Pakistani Shiites, and this disturbs Islamabad. The main actor who assess that the activities carried out by Iran outside its borders threaten regional and global peace is the USA. Similarly, the Balochistan Problem frequently confronts Islamabad and Tehran. It is possible that the USA will try to use this issue in order to gain over Pakistan.

As a result, Pakistan wants to turn to a multidimensioned diplomacy in order to limit the influence of China in foreign policy, and for this reason, it tries to carry its cooperation with the USA to a comprehensive stage that is not limited to the Afghan Peace Process. Absolutely, intention of Islamabad is a situation that Washington will also prefer due to its global leadership struggle with Beijing. In this context, it can be predicted that the USA will take initiatives to reduce the tension between India and Pakistan, and while doing this, it will not neglect to touch the  sensitive matter of the two countries in a way that will bring Islamabad and Tehran face to face.

[1] “Pakistan Rules Out Military Bases for US Anti-Terror Afghan Operations”, Voice of America, https://www.voanews.com/south-central-asia/pakistan-rules-out-military-bases-us-anti-terror-afghan-operations, (Erişim Tarihi: 28.05.2021).

[2] “Taliban Warns Afghanistan’s Neighbors Against Allowing U.S. Bases”, AKI Press, https://akipress.com/news:658683:Taliban_warns_Afghanistan_s_neighbors_against_allowing_U_S__bases/, (Erişim Tarihi: 28.05.2021).

[3] “Pakistan Tells US It Wants Ties beyond Afghan Cooperation”, The News, https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/839678-pakistan-tells-us-it-wants-ties-beyond-afghan-cooperation, (Erişim Tarihi: 28.05.2021).

[4] “UAE is Mediating between India and Pakistan, Says Senior Diplomat”, Al Jazeera¸ https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/4/15/uae-is-mediating-between-india-and-pakistan-says-senior-diplomat, (Erişim Tarihi: 29.05.2021).

[5]  “India Desires Cordial Relations’: Modi in Letter to Pakistan PM”, Al Jazeera, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/3/24/india-desires-cordial-relations-modi-in-letter-to-pakistan-pm, (Erişim Tarihi: 07.04.2021).

Dr. Doğacan BAŞARAN
ANKASAM Uluslararası İlişkiler Uzmanı