The Ministry of Finance, Pakistan, shared a picture on social media platform X of a meeting between Finance Minister of Pakistan Mohammad Aurangzeb and Assistant Secretary Donald Lu & Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Elizabeth Horst of the US State Department at the World Bank Head Quarters. The meeting reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to bolster Pak-US ties.

However, this piece argues that the US-Pak relations suffer from the lack of bilateralism. The future of Pak-US ties lies in improving the bilateral aspects of the relationship. This means decoupling from the traditional lens of viewing the relationship from a third country or “Country X” perspective.

Since the US and Pakistan established diplomatic ties in 1947, their relationship, for the good part, has been marred by the presence of a third country.

It is argued that the “Country X Syndrome” has hampered the relationship. Either it is the USA that engages with Pakistan through a third country lens or Pakistan that engages with the USA from a third country perspective, and sometimes it is both. Moreover, this reference point of a third country revolves around the security dimension of the US-Pak relationship.

The US-Pak relationship is viewed as transactional, an unhappy marriage, a roller coaster ride. However, since 1947, it is the presence of a third country that brings these two geographically distant countries together. Dividing the relationship into various “Country X” perspectives, four distinct watertight compartments can be identified: Pakistan-India-USA, USA-Afghanistan-Pakistan, USA-Afghanistan-Pakistan, USA-China-Pakistan, Pakistan-Iran-USA and at present, all of them combined.

The Pakistan-India-USA nexus defined the US-Pak relationship for a long time. It dates back to 1947 and still revolves around various security dimensions and the question of the Kashmir dispute. In this perspective, Pakistan turned to the USA to bolster its security capabilities and garner support for the Kashmir cause in return for Pakistan’s support in the Cold War against the USSR. However, after the end of the Cold War in 1991, this relationship aspect was put on the back burner.

Then there is the second perspective of the Cold War where the ideological foes battled it out in Afghanistan. Again, in Pakistan, the regime of General Zia ul Haque was more than happy to be utilized for this purpose. The proxy war in Afghanistan brought the USA and Pakistan together on the security dimension of the relationship. It was also the time when Pakistan was working on its nuclear arsenal while the USA purposely looked the other way. Interestingly, the end of the Cold War brought the relationship to a halt, and both allies looked the other way.

The sanctions imposed on Pakistan for testing its nuclear weapons in 1997 reinforce the argument that in the absence of a Country X, the Pak-US ties grow cold.

The War on Terror in the aftermath of 9/11 was to revive this idle relationship and bring Country X into the relationship once again, i.e. Afghanistan. The U.S. stayed in Afghanistan for two decades, and Pakistan assisted USA in its mission to curb terrorism.

During this time, US-Pak relations were swinging in both extremes. At one extreme, Pakistan was provided billions of dollars in aid and received the status of a Major Non-NATO Ally; on the other extreme, Admiral Mike Mullen labelled Haqqani Network as a veritable arm of ISI. Speaking about foreign aid during this period, data from the foreign assistance website reflects a steady increase in aid tilting towards the military side, reaching its zenith in 2010 of USD 2.7 billion by all agencies and then gradually declining to USD 150 million in 2023.

Another important factor is that the presence of Country X does not guarantee that US-Pak relations will improve for the better. The cases of China, Russia, and Iran are empirical examples of Pakistan’s improvement in ties with these countries, raising concerns for the US.

It is no secret that the USA-Pakistan-China aspect of the relationship dictates the relationship between Washington, D.C., and Islamabad. This is a concern for Pakistan as it does not favour choosing sides. China has committed more than USD 60 Billion to Pakistan under the Pakistan Economic Corridor initiative.

Pakistan, after the curtailment of Foreign Military Financing and Foreign Military Sales by the US, looks up to China for its defence equipment requirements, which further puts a strain on US-Pak relations.

Finally, there is Iran, a neighbour of Pakistan. Both Iran and the USA have made their disdain for each other public, and Pakistan’s engagement with Iran is monitored closely in the US. Areas of cooperation between Pakistan and Iran, such as the Iran-Pakistan gas line, which on the face of it will help Pakistan address its energy crisis, are held hostage to this dynamic. Moreover, Pakistan’s relationship with Iran takes further significance in the current context, where Israel and Iran are involved in direct hostilities.

It is pertinent to mention that President Raisi of Iran will be in Pakistan from Monday, 22nd April, for a three-day visit. US top diplomats in D.C and Islamabad have already held discussions with the Pakistan side in the backdrop of this visit.  Thus, Pakistan will again be in a bind, on the one hand it has to engage with Iran as it makes sense to have good relations with its neighbours, on the other, it has to engage Iran enough that it does not irks the US.

The way forward for the US-Pak relationship is to decouple from the “Country X Syndrome” and the security aspect of the relationship. Both countries should focus more on the economic aspects of their bilateral relationship. For Pakistan, this will create diplomatic space as Pakistan is already reluctant to engage with India, unable to cooperate with a restive Afghanistan, limited in improving economic relations with Iran and forced to pick sides with China.

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