Thursday, May 19, 2022

Where are Pak-US Ties Headed?

Washington, DC – Islamabad’s fragile relationship with Washington reached new lows after former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan leveled serious allegations against the United States. Khan alleged that the Biden administration colluded with his rivals on the no-confidence motion, which the opposition brought about because of the prime minister’s economic misgovernance.

Opposition parties say Khan failed to revive an economy battered by the coronavirus pandemic or fulfill promises to make his government more transparent and accountable. Khan blocked the no-confidence vote that he likely would have lost, dissolved Parliament, and called for early elections. But the Supreme Court declared both moves unconstitutional, and the Parliament voted Khan out in a no-confidence vote.

Khan had argued that the no-confidence motion was discredited because it was tied to a US conspiracy and violated Article 5 of Pakistan’s constitution, which emphasizes loyalty to the state.

His allegation stemmed from a reported private exchange between a senior US official and Asad Majeed Khan, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington. Asad Majeed Khan conveyed to Islamabad that the US official had expressed unhappiness about the prime minister and said US-Pakistan relations would be better if he were removed in the no-confidence vote.

In Pakistan, public mistrust of the United States runs deep—in great part because there is a history of US meddling in Pakistan’s internal politics. Relations are strained, particularly over Afghanistan, where Washington accused Pakistan of backing the successful Taliban insurgency that led last year to a chaotic withdrawal of US and allied forces.

Khan’s allegations have hurt US -Pakistan relations, especially after publicly naming the US official as Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Donald Lu.

Referring to his conversation with Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington, a journalist asked Donald Lu, “Imran Khan seems to suggest that you had a conversation with the Pakistani ambassador in the US and told him that if Imran Khan survives the no-confidence motion, Pakistan is in trouble and the US won’t forgive Pakistan. Any response?” Lu avoided a direct reply and said, “We are following developments in Pakistan, and we respect and support Pakistan’s constitutional process and the rule of law” The US State Department spokesman Ned Price has said there was “no truth” to the allegations.

Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has been holding rallies across the nation, calling them a march against the imported government. Since his ouster, Khan has launched a website called Imported Government Namanzoor (we reject the imported government) and appealed to overseas Pakistanis to contribute funds to campaign for ‘Pakistan’s freedom’ from foreign interference. He says the goal is to hold elections so that the Pakistani people can decide if they want to be ruled by thieves [Shehbaz Sharif’s government] or not.

America may further get influenced by Russia’s decision to voice its opinion against alleged American interference in Pakistan’s politics. Wading into the political battle raging in Islamabad over the alleged threat made against Imran Khan’s government by an American official, Moscow accused the United States of committing “another attempt of shameless interference” in the internal affairs of Pakistan to punish a “disobedient” Imran Khan for not supporting the US position on Ukraine.

Khan stood behind his decision to visit Moscow and meet Vladimir Putin just hours after the Russian leader ordered troops into Ukraine. Khan has also criticized the European Union for asking Pakistan to condemn the Russian attack.

The army appears keen not to jeopardize relations with Washington, which has in the past supplied it with billions of dollars in military aid. Bajwa told a security conference in Islamabad that “we share a long history of excellent and strategic relationship with the United States, which remains our largest export market.” He noted that Pakistan had long enjoyed close diplomatic and business relationships with China but added, “We seek to expand and broaden our ties with both countries without impacting our relations with the other.” On the issue of Russia-Ukraine, Bajwa said, “Sadly, the Russian invasion against Ukraine is very unfortunate…Despite legitimate security concerns of Russia, its aggression against a smaller country cannot be condoned.” The army chief’s comments are significant because the military has ruled Pakistan for about half of its existence and enjoys an outsized role in its foreign and security policies.

A confrontation with Washington could not only derail Pakistan’s economic arrangement but would also have a negative impact on the country’s economic standing. Talking about the most alarming and obvious consequence of dragging the US into Pakistan’s domestic political turmoil, a Bloomberg news service warned that Pakistan’s default risk was rising. “Pakistan’s political upheaval is adding to a surge in the nation’s default risk and triggering off further losses in the nation’s bonds and currency.” The Bloomberg report pointed out that the ongoing political turmoil had already caused the Pakistani currency to sink. Quoting an international rating agency, Moody’s, the report noted that the country’s dollar bonds have already slumped 5 percent this year. Other financial services also stressed this point, questioning the government’s ability to continue implementing the reforms it agreed to with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which is providing financial support to the country’s ailing economy. Increased tensions with the US could further damage Pakistan at the FATF, which has already placed the country on its gray list.

Shehbaz Sharif’s government is playing it safe and signaling that it wants a constructive relationship with the US leading to peace, security, and development in the volatile region. But it’s clear that the most important relationship to Pakistan is the one with China. After three Chinese teachers were killed in a suicide attack in Karachi, PM Shehbaz Sharif rushed to the Chinese embassy to assuage the Chinese government and vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice. He was accompanied by no less than four members of his cabinet: Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan, Information and Broadcasting Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar, and Foreign Secretary Sohail Mahmood.

While the US is a crucial partner for Pakistan’s private sector and has been Pakistan’s largest export market for decades, Chinese loans are 10 percent of its total loans, and 26 percent of its overall external debt. Keeping this in mind, Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif’s genuflection to the Chinese is not surprising at all. In this fluid situation, it is to be seen how he performs the balancing act.

 

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Pia Sherman
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