On the 4th of November 2021, the Centre for Public Policy and Governance, in collaboration with the Executive Development Institute (EDI) at the National School of Public Policy (NSPP) organized a talk on “US-Pakistan Relations in the Wake of Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan.”
A brief introduction of the EDI at the NSPP was provided by Mr. Ahmad Nazir Warraich (Dean EDI) who explained the significance of the EDI as a premier institute working for the professional training of public officials in Pakistan.
Dr. Saeed Shafqat, Professor and Founding Director at CPPG introduced the speakers including Ambassador Dr. Asad Majeed Khan and Dr. Rasul B. Rais. Ambassador Khan is a career Pakistan Foreign Service officer. During his diplomatic career spanning over 30 years, he has held several key positions including: Pakistan’s Ambassador to Japan (2017); Pakistan’s Charge d’ Affaires ad interim to the United States (2013-2014); Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of Pakistan, Washington D.C (2012-2015). He has also been Director General (United Nations) in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Islamabad (2010-2011) and Minister-Counselor at the Permanent Mission of Pakistan to the United Nations (2004-2010). Ambassador Khan earned his Doctorate in International Economic and Business Law (LL.D.) from Kyushu University Japan and has been a resource person at various academic institutions Pakistan, including International Islamic University, Islamabad, University of Management Sciences, Foreign Trade Institute of Pakistan and Foreign Services Academy.
Dr. Rasul B. Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore since 2002. Dr Rais has a Ph.D. in Political Science from University of California, Santa Barbara. Before joining LUMS, he remained associated with the Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad for nearly 22 years as Professor/Director, Area Study Centre and prior to that as Associate Professor in the Department of International Relations. He was Quaid-i-Azam Distinguished Professor of Pakistan Studies at Columbia University, New York (1991-94). He is the author of Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2008), War Without Winners: Afghanistan’s Uncertain Transition after the Cold War (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1996), Indian Ocean and the Superpowers: Economic, Political and Strategic Perspectives (London: Croom Helm, 1986), editor of State, Society and Democratic Change in Pakistan (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1997) and with Charles H. Kennedy, Pakistan 1995 (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996) He has published widely in professional journals on political and security issues pertaining to South Asia, Indian Ocean and Afghanistan.
Dr. Shafqat placed the context of the talk by posing the following questions:
- How can we understand the changing dynamics of US-Pakistan relations and is it fair to call it a ‘painfully enduring’ relations?
- Can we understand US-Pakistan relations without first understanding US-China relations?
- Almost all states, including Great Powers, are now ‘engaging with the Taliban’, how would it possibly lead to ‘recognition of Taliban government’ and what impact it may have on the US-Pakistan relations?
Ambassador Khan took the floor and explained how the US role in Central and South Asia was essentially one that was determined by their strategy of containing the Soviet Union. Trade, investment and educational endeavors too were part of this agenda. However if we look at trade statistics, Pakistan’s exports to the US have been less than 1 bn USD. Only after 2005 did this number cross 3 bn USD, and last year was a record at 5 bn USD—all of which are not very significant.
The two Hot Wars, the first Afghan war (1979-88) which was precipitated by the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and the second, following 9/11/ 2001 and US intervention in Afghanistan—the Global War on Terror (GWT) have determined the nature of US engagement with Pakistan. In fact, Ambassador Khan, described Afghanistan as the “designer in chief” of our relationship with the US. During the Trump presidency (2017-2021) Afghanistan was perceived and projected by the US policy makers as the key-determining factor, how the US envisioned Pakistan. As a result, the US further curtailed military assistance and its economic assistance to Pakistan also plummeted. In the US perception, Pakistan as an ally did not live up to their expectations. Thus ambassador Khan contended that, we could say that the US- Pakistan reltions have been ‘security centric’ and security forms a central part of this equation.
Ambassador Khan partly attributed this to weakening of the US- Pakistan academic exchanges in the past two decades. Implicitly, he called for reviving the flow of American scholars to Pakistan, simultaneoulsy encouraging Pakistani scholars to visit the US. He argued such academic exchanges could help in making informed decision-making on both sides.
Ambassador Khan continued that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has resulted in shock and disbelief—the Trump presidency created a timeline of withdrawal, which the Biden administration inherited and had to follow, and as a result a state of confusion and finger pointing emerged. Pakistan became an easy scapegoat towards which blame is being targeted.
Drawing attention towards Washington’s primary concern, he said now is, the retraction of those willing to leave Afghanistan and of course this is pursued in the context of securing the US ‘homeland’ as a priority.
According to ambassador Khan, from the Pakistani perspective, investing in peace in Afghanistan is the best counter-terrorism strategy that can be pursued. Ambassador Khan argued that on peace building the US and Pakistan’s strategic goals are ‘fundamentally aligned’—both countries need a stable Afghanistan that is not a security threat. It is clear that force and coercion do not work and therefore ‘engagement with the Taliban’ is the only option. This of course does not necessarily mean ‘recognition’, but engagement cannot be avoided, particularly in light of the humanitarian crisis that is enfolding there.
This also needs to be understood in the scenario that during the past five years, Pakistan is now less dependent on assistance, military aid specifically, from the US. Conversely, Pakistan has been on the giving end, rather than the receiving end, when we come to US-Pakistan relations.
On the rise of China and its role in the global and regional affairs, Ambassador Khan said that it is evident that China is a new superpower that cannot be ignored. From the Pakistani perspective, we have had significant relations with both China and the US and pursuing relations with the two is not a mutually exclusive process. He underscored that sustainable peace in Afghanistan cannot happen without the cooperation of all major stakeholders including the US and China. Consequently, the CPEC can play a role in exemplifying this cooperation.
Ambassador Khan concluded his talk by saying that Pakistan is a country with its own economic and geostrategic salience—this is enough for standalone positive relations with the US. Similarly Pakistan does have the prerogative to pursue its interests in West Asia, and with its eastern neighbors that go beyond bilateral relations with world powers. Finally, contrary to popular perception, Ambassador Khan was emphatic in conveying that the US-Pakistan relations are in ‘a good place’. Media reports do not necessarily reflect the sentiments of the US administration. Ambassador Khan said his diplomatic experience leads him to believe that Pakistani and US public officials meet cordially and engage on cooperative dialogue on the economy, on trade, and on climate change.
Dr. Rasul B. Rais spoke next and argued that our policy on Afghanistan was one that was framed by Pakistan’s necessity to engage with its neighbor. The US made a decision to be involved to counter the Soviet Union. However, the US never seemed to recognize the role Pakistan played in facilitating the US’ engagement in the region. Pakistan has been marred with internal conflicts too and we sacrificed a lot during the course of the US-Afghan War, yet this has not sufficiently been acknowledged.
Dr. Rais continued to say that 2014 was a turning point for Pakistan as this is when the Obama Administration announced a withdrawal strategy. It was understood that a period of turmoil would follow, as the major stakeholders were unable to facilitate the creation of a functioning Afghan administration, a ‘new Afghanistan’. According to him, what happened in August of this year was a repetition of history; we had already seen people attempting to flee Afghanistan in desperate circumstances. He argued that the US withdrawal was a complete failure and what took place during the days following the events of August 15th when the last of US troops left. It illustrated that the US was unable to achieve anything meaningful in Afghanistan.
The US must realize that Pakistan is a country that cannot be sidelined and our importance is not limited to our strategic geographic location. We have immense potential that is driven by economy, our size, including a significant middle class. Dr. Rais concluded by saying that there are so many overlaps in terms of economic, cultural, and linguistic similarities between Afghanistan and Pakistan that it is imperative for us to foster a constructive working relationship.
The talks were followed by a invigorating Q&A session. Ambassador Khan and Dr. Rais were asked to expand upon the Pakistan-US-Afghanistan nexus and what the term “strategic threat” means in this equation. The discussion revolved around the argument that Pakistan is an independent country that is pursuing its strategic goals like any other country would. We are not doing anything that is unique to any country’s policymakers. Pakistan’s foreign policies are in line with international practices.
On the issue of refugees, Ambassador Khan articulated that Pakistan is the location of choice for those fleeing Afghanistan. Yet this has not been reported enough and Afghans continue to have a negative view of us. However, after the US withdrawal, there are signs of introspection and efforts to create a more realistic understanding of the situation. Dr. Rais added that Pakistan has been home to more than 70% of the Afghan middle class; a majority of them have received their education here.
On a question pertaining to changing alliances and pressures resulting from strategic alignments, Ambassador Khan said the only way to face these pressures and move forward was through collaborative diplomatic efforts. He mentioned that the Troika dialogues are an example where broad interests are aligned.
For the closing remarks and vote of thanks the two Rectors were invited to comment. In his comments Dr. Jonathan Addleton, Rector Forman Christian College, appreciated the speakers and the organizers of the event. He found the presentations to be insightful, and felt that they gave much to hope for in terms of the future of the region. His own childhood experiences, including his time in Murree when Kissinger was visiting Pakistan for talks with China, point to the pivotal role Pakistan can play in fostering regional dialogue and cooperation.
Dr. Ijaz Munir, Rector NSPP concluded the event, and drew attention on the need of considering the ‘opportunity cost’ for the US while remaining engaged in a 20 years long Global War on Terror in Afghanistan. This opportunity cost was America’s inability to create successful relations with other regional partners—an‘opportunity cost’ that is seldom talked about but it is nonetheless a lost opportunity for the US. On the other hand China has used the past 20 years to build its economy and its diplomatic clout. The lesson to learn here is that when we make our strategic choices, we should always take into consideration the possibile future trajectories and their outcomes.