Pakistan and the US The Excelsior 28 Dec 2023
Pakistan’s army chief, General Asim Munir, made his first US visit, after his appointment as army chief, last week. As the de-facto ruler of Pakistan all decisions in the country are cleared by him. The visit came at a time when relations between the two were stagnating. Pakistan no longer occupies the strategic space it once did post the withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan.
It is currently a stooge of China, deeply in debt, forcibly repatriating Afghan refugees, while fighting the TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan), as also Baloch freedom fighters, along its western borders. It continues to host anti-India terrorist groups on its soil.
Asim Munir was given the invite after Pakistan endeared itself to the US by providing ammunition for Ukraine to meet shortfalls in western production, though it denies the same. Not much has been revealed in meetings held by Asim Munir in the US other than broad comments including discussing ‘regional security developments and potential areas for bilateral defence cooperation.’ However, both nations had their own agenda’s which would have been covered in discussions.
For the US, major concerns would remain repatriation of Afghan refugees, supporting terrorist groups, including those operating in Kashmir and the ISIK in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s growing proximity with China, which includes providing it a possible base in Gwadar, a port which China is funding and developing. While Pakistan has no role in the Israel-Hamas conflict its support for Palestine would have been discussed.
For Pakistan, major subjects of concern would be continued assistance from the IMF, pushing Afghanistan to crack down on the TTP and Baloch, talks with India on Kashmir and recommencement of military support to enable import of military equipment including spares for its US origin equipment, especially the F 16s. Munir would have also discussed Pakistan’s future government as rigging elections is a norm in the country. Pakistan needs the US and not the other way around.
There are convergences between the US and Pak. Both back anti-India groups, with Pak, apart from sustaining terrorist groups operating in Kashmir, also funds the Khalistan movement, a key functionary of which resides in the US, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, the leader of the so-called SFJ (Sikhs for Justice), who is protected by the US government. There have been reports of ISI agents meeting leaders of the so-called movement in Canada and the US.
Secondly, while both criticize the Indian democratic model, both have banned their most likely candidate from contesting the next election. In Pakistan, Imran Khan, who heads the popularity chart is incarcerated, while in the US, Trump, who leads the race for the White House is being banned from participating in elections in state primaries. His future rests in the hands of the US Supreme Court.
Finally, in Pakistan, elections are rigged and the individual selected to form the government is decided in Rawalpindi. In the US, every election ends up with reports of ballot stuffing and missing ballot papers. While the US maintains silence on Pakistan’s rigged democratic process it accuses Bangladesh of subverting the same.
While the US continuously lectures India on human rights, there was no report of Pakistan’s de-facto ruler being ticked off due to enforced disappearances, democratic shortcomings, human rights and religious freedom, despite evidence, the latest being of Baloch protestors. Wonder if it was intentionally avoided.
Pak-China relations will remain a stumbling block in US-Pak ties and would have been the core discussion point during the visit. The US is working to contain China, while Pakistan is deeply indebted to it. The US seeks to limit Chinese naval expansion, while Pakistan may provide it a base in Gwadar, adding to US’s concerns in West Asia. The US would have placed riders on additional loans from the IMF to include curtailing Islamabad’s dependency on China. Simultaneously, Pakistan would have attempted to convince the US that it is not a Chinese proxy.
The US would also desire that Pakistan slow down its deportation of Afghans, especially those awaiting acceptance by the US and other western nations. Many Afghans had operated alongside NATO forces during their deployment in the country. Post the Taliban takeover they had relocated to Pakistan awaiting clearance of their migration documents. Pushing them back could be detrimental to their security.
For Pakistan, Kashmir would always be high in the agenda. The common point, mentioned in all discussions involving Munir, including with the UN Secretary General and US think tanks was Kashmir. Pakistan seeks resolution of the dispute under the UN charter, which has become meaningless post the Shimla agreement and the Lahore declaration. No entity, including the UN or the US, has mentioned mediation in deference to India.
India commented on the visit with its spokesperson mentioning, ‘Our concerns for Pakistan’s support to terrorism, its support to cross border attacks is well known. We would hope that other countries would also take counter-terrorism seriously.’
Increased attacks by the TTP could result in Pakistan targeting its bases in Afghanistan, an act for which it needs US backing as it could signal increased tensions in the region. With Ukraine and Gaza conflicts continuing, a third one may not be acceptable. As an alternative, Pak would have sought US support in pushing Afghanistan to rein in the TTP.
Two incidents which occurred around the time of the visit would have been raised in discussions. The first was the verdict of the Indian supreme court upholding the decision of the government on Article 370. The second was the attack on Pakistan’s base in Dera Ismail Khan, resulting in the death of 23 soldiers. The Indian supreme court verdict rendered Pakistan’s claims to Kashmir as redundant, while the attack displayed support provided by the Afghan government.
To project a neutral approach Munir went so far as to state that ‘Pakistan is a country of consequence both from the geopolitical and geoeconomic perspectives.’ However, in recent years, both these have been ignored. They can only come to fructification provided Pakistan opens itself to improved relations and trade with India.
For Munir, the visit was a means of obtaining crucial support including financial, as the nation delays elections to ensure removal of Imran Khan from the political scene, as also increased security challenges. For the US, it was pushing Pakistan to reduce its dependencies on China.