US should seek to mend the broken relationship with Pakistan

The United States should seek to build — over the next five to 10 years — a new partnership with Pakistan similar to the sort of partnership the U.S. has with Bangladesh. We are never going to be “best friends” with Pakistan, but we should reengage from this moment of very low trust to work towards a partnership beyond security interests.  

The U.S. and Pakistan have long held a complicated relationship primarily focused on security issues, such as counterterrorism.   

Pakistan has recently undergone a significant political transition, marking an opportunity to reevaluate and adjust the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Shebaz Sharif, was elected Prime Minister following a vote of no-confidence on Imran Kahn. Sharif will likely remain Prime Minister until the 2023 election. Pakistan is actively looking to bolster its relationship with the U.S., while also seeking to improve its relationship with India. Regardless of how we engage with Pakistan, Pakistan will continue to maintain very close ties with China for economic and geopolitical reasons. The U.S. invited Pakistan to the Summit for Democracy in December, but the government, led by former Prime Minister Khan, declined.  

Pakistan is the fifth largest country in the world in terms of population and is one of the most rapidly urbanizing countries in South Asia, boasting the 42nd largest economy in 2020 in terms of GDP and the 24th in terms of purchasing power parity. It has a growing reputation for high-tech innovation. In 2021 an estimated 63 percent of Pakistan’s population were between the ages of 15 and 33, signaling high potential for economic growth.

While the U.S. has close and multi-dimensional relationships with countries with similar footprints to Pakistan — such as Indonesia and Ethiopia — Pakistan is often only approached when considering geopolitical dimensions with Afghanistan, China, and India. Without U.S. troops in Afghanistan, United States interests in Pakistan have changed.   

I would have preferred that the U.S. maintain a presence in Afghanistan, but that is water under the bridge. Pakistan’s hosting of over 3 million refugees from Afghanistan and its documented relationship with the Taliban are further reasons to engage — especially in the interest of protecting humanitarian issues and restoring human rights, including women’s rights in Afghanistan, potential growth in the region, and counterterrorism objectives.  

The United States has always been a consistent economic partner for Pakistan and is Pakistan’s largest export market (i.e., approximately $6 billion). The U.S. has also been one of its top investors in consumer goods, chemical industries, energy, agriculture, transportation, and communications. However, despite some improvements to the business climate, security considerations and reputational issues still limit U.S. partnerships within Pakistan. In addition, nearly 1 million Pakistanis now live in the United States.

To engage with Pakistan, the United States should aim to prevent misperceptions and totally groundless conspiracy theories from gaining further traction in Pakistan. For example, former PM Imran Khan recklessly accused the U.S. of manipulating the no-confidence vote that led to Mr. Khan’s fall from the PM post. This accusation is totally false. Mr. Khan is already positioning himself to run in the 2023 elections. Despite Pakistan’s need to continue IMF loans and economic aid from the U.S. and others, very negative public opinion in Pakistan towards the United States has the potential to limit Pakistan’s engagement.

Although it may not seem apparent at first glance, it is in the American interest to build a more broad-based relationship with Pakistan.  Such a relationship would not just be anchored around security issues, but would have much more engagement on areas of trade, energy, climate, women’s and girls’ education, science and technology and health. In addition, we should be seeking to encourage more educational exchanges between Pakistan and the United States. For example, it is hard to believe that there are more Iranian students studying in the United States than there are Pakistani students.

For its part, Pakistan should recommit to structural reform of the Pakistani economy, addressing longstanding issues of revenue collection and attractiveness for foreign investment. It can build on the “geoeconomics” initiative of the previous administration to make Pakistan live up to its considerable economic potential. The United States and Pakistan should repair, and restore our broken relationship, dispel misconceptions and take a long view seeking stronger ties based on economics and other non-security issues.  

Originally published on on August 12, 2022.

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