US-Pakistan relations are said to be improving after an “ice-breaker” meeting between Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. Until Tuesday, when the two met on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, cracks in US-Pakistan relations had continued to deepen at stratospheric speed following U.S. President Donald Trump’s policy statement on Afghanistan and South Asia.
As part of his Afghan strategy unveiled a month ago, Trump made it clear that he feels Pakistan should “do more” in the fight against terrorism. He also claimed that the South Asian nation had “much to lose” by continuing to harbor militants on its soil.
Trump’s criticism and accusation prompted an immediate response in Islamabad. Pakistani officials threatened that they would sever ties with Washington, and Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif toured key Eurasian powers in an apparent attempt to discuss forming a united front to oppose America’s Afghan policy.
On Tuesday, PM Abbasi and VP Pence met to confront the elephant in the room and sort out the differences that have been plaguing the decades-old partnership between Pakistan and the U.S.
Are US-Pakistan relations actually getting better?
Their talks on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York have had no immediate effect on US-Pakistan relations. However, Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua, who briefed the Pakistani media about the meeting, called the meeting between PM Abbasi and VP Pence an “ice-breaker.”
The two sides are said to have vowed to remain engaged and carry forward the diplomatic relationship between Washington and Islamabad. The meeting comes as dozens of reports circulating in the media suggest that President Trump is considering an attempt to designate Pakistan as a terrorist state, which would further aggravate US-Pakistan relations.
During the meeting, PM Abbasi informed VP Pence about decisions made by Pakistan’s National Security Committee. The two sides are also said to have agreed to continue dialogues over the Afghanistan issue. In fact, Mrs. Janjua told the media that PM Abbasi and VP Pence agreed that a U.S. delegation will visit Pakistan next month to continue the negotiations.
What did Abbasi and Pence talk about?
VP Pence said the Trump administration will “look forward to exploring ways so that we can work even more closely” with Pakistan and the Abbasi government to “advance security throughout the region.” The Vice President reportedly stopped short of echoing President Trump’s harsh remarks about what he sees as an insufficient contribution by Pakistan to the war on terror in the region.
PM Abbasi reportedly reiterated that his country has made huge sacrifices in this war and added that Pakistan would continue cooperating with the U.S. to eliminate terrorism and bolster regional security.
“We have made our contributions, we fought a very difficult war, we suffered casualties and have suffered economic losses and that is the message that we bring to the world,” PM Abbasi told VP Pence, according to DAWN. “We are partners in the war against terrorism.”
Islamabad met Trump’s remarks with strong criticism, lashing out at Washington for failing to acknowledge its sacrifices in the fight against terrorism. The war has claimed the lives of nearly 22,000 Pakistani civilians and over 6,800 Pakistan’s soldiers since 2003.
US-Pakistan relations could barrel toward a new all-time low
As US-Pakistan relations stand at a turning point following the Pence-Abbasi meeting, experts predict that ties between the two nations could reach its new all-time low. The Pakistani government is preparing a “three-option toughest diplomatic policy” following the revelation of Trump’s Afghan strategy, according to federal sources cited by The Tribune over the weekend.
In the extreme case scenario as part of its “toughest diplomatic policy,” Islamabad would cut access for U.S. and NATO military supplies to war-torn Afghanistan. Pakistan resorted to the same measure in the past when it cut off all NATO supplies to Afghan soil after US-led NATO forces killed 28 Pakistani soldiers in a 2011 airstrike.
Before implementing this “extreme” option, however, the Pakistani government is said to be considering limiting diplomatic relations with Washington and reducing bilateral cooperation on security and terrorism issues. Islamabad has also warned it would hit the brakes on talks to buy more F-16 supersonic multi-role fighter aircraft from the U.S. and would instead seek military assistance from China, its all-weather friend.
What does the US have up its sleeve against Pakistan?
Washington is believed to have even more countermeasures against Islamabad up its sleeve. In fact, just days after Trump unveiled his Afghan strategy last month, state regulators threatened to shut down the U.S. operations of Habib Bank, which is majority-owned by the Pakistani government, for regulatory violations. The threats prompted the bank to close its only branch in the U.S.
But the not-so-subtle financial pressure on Habib Bank appears to be just the tip of the iceberg. Washington is also said to be considering a plan to strip Pakistan of its non-NATO ally status, which offers a variety of military and financial advantages. Among other strict measures against Pakistan for allegedly failing to “do more” in the fight on terror are cutting off all aid, imposing a travel ban and even declaring the nation a terrorist state.
While the measures are expected to put a significant strain on US-Pakistan relations, a new report by a leading British defense think-tank warned that Washington needs Islamabad more than Islamabad needs Washington. The Royal United Studies Institute (RUSI) noted in its Sept. 4 report that the ever-increasing partnership between China and Pakistan has helped the latter gain confidence. The think tank even says China’s assistance “has eclipsed anything America has had to offer in terms of military and economic assistance.”
Pakistan moves closer to China, Russia and Turkey
Multiple experts have warned that Washington’s criticism of Islamabad would push the nuclear-armed nation closer to its all-weather ally China and even Russia, with whom Pakistan has enjoyed warm ties lately. In fact, Beijing and Moscow were among the first ones to rush to Pakistan’s rescue and defend it against Trump’s hardline approach to Afghanistan and South Asia policy.
As part of his tour around Eurasia, Pakistan Foreign Minister Asif visited Turkey, which has long been allied with Pakistan, China and Russia. The meeting between Asif and high-profile Turkish officials has triggered a theory that Ankara, Islamabad, Beijing and Moscow could be forming a united bloc.
In fact, before his meeting with VP Pence, Pakistani PM Abbasi met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. While that meeting has further fueled the China-Russia-Turkey-Pakistan bloc theory, the two leaders reiterated their commitment to enhancing their bilateral economic cooperation and finalizing their Free Trade Agreement.
Mr. Erdogan and PM Abbasi reached a unanimous conclusion that there is no military solution to the Afghanistan issue. They also emphasized the importance of finding a political solution to the crisis in order to achieve peace and stability in the region.
It’s unclear at this point if Pakistan, Turkey, China and Russia have devised a viable plan to oppose Trump’s Afghan strategy, which includes deploying more U.S. troops to the war-torn nation. However, the increased frequency of diplomatic contacts between the four nations signal that a China-Russia-Turkey-Pakistan bloc might be in the cards.