The worst floods in memory may have occasioned a reset in relations, but Imran Khan could still prove a spoiler.
As millions of Pakistanis reel from the worst floods in living memory, national and international humanitarian rescue and relief efforts have coincided with a notable political development: a slow-but-steady resumption of high-level contact between Pakistan and the United States.
Calculating the full human and economic cost of Pakistan’s latest climate disaster will take time. But the crisis seems to have provided the Biden administration with the necessary justification for a diplomatic recommitment to the strategically situated, nuclear-armed country.
This marks a departure from a year ago, following the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Pakistan’s leaders saw the U.S. exit as poorly executed, and senior U.S. officials voiced their frustration at Pakistan for not having brought more weight to bear on the Afghan Taliban to reach a negotiated peace settlement with the former Ashraf Ghani-led government. Subsequent suggestions by U.S. officials that the relationship with Pakistan could be downgraded were viewed in Islamabad as petty punishment: partly for not having done more to help America in Afghanistan and partly for former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ill-timed visit to Russia on the eve of its invasion of Ukraine.
But when Khan began to accuse the United States of trying to engineer regime change in Pakistan, prompting a full-blown political crisis in Islamabad, Washington’s decision to hold off on further engagement became diplomatically prudent rather than vengeful.
Khan has not shied away from cleaving his country’s relationship with the United States and the West more generally. After a no-confidence vote by Pakistan’s opposition parties, the ousted prime minister started staging megarallies across Pakistan’s cities. Despite the country’s worst monsoon in decades, he has continued to foment popular unrest, demonizing the new coalition government that replaced him and accused the Pakistan Army of politicization.
Although Khan’s allegations of U.S. regime change are far-fetched, there remains some truth to the claim that it was the Pakistan Army’s withdrawal of its support for Khan that prompted April’s change in government. The Army initially helped pave the way for Khan’s electoral victory in 2018, but it is said to have been increasingly aggravated by the high costs of Khan’s populist politics, which often used anti-American sentiment to whip up domestic support.
In contrast to Khan, the Pakistan Army sees ties with the United States as central to Pakistan’s geopolitical relevance and key to stabilizing a worsening economy and acute liquidity crisis. To this end, one of the first measures taken by the Shehbaz Sharif-led coalition government that replaced Khan’s was to overturn Khan’s unfunded fuel and electricity subsidies. This was so Pakistan could resume negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), following a seven-month hiatus, over a $6.5 billion program.
For Washington’s part, in addition to the resumption of the IMF program, there are other signs of a willingness to revive ties. Devastating floods have been accompanied by a flurry of high-profile official visits from Washington: first by State Department counselor Derek Chollet, who announced a 10-day humanitarian air bridge to Pakistan and a $30 million relief package, and then a strategically timed visit by U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power, who took the time to field questions at a press conference in Islamabad to Pakistani journalists. Even though the pretext for the two visits was largely humanitarian in nature, both officials spoke about the significance of 75 years of bilateral relations between the two countries as well as the importance of deepening ties.
Almost simultaneously, the State Department announced the approval of the potential sale of F-16 aircraft sustainment and related equipment to Pakistan in a deal valued at up to $450 million, with the objective of servicing joint counterterrorism objectives. This decision overturns an earlier decision by the former Trump administration to end the technological and technical support program for the Pakistani fleet. The summer also saw the appointment of a full-time career ambassador to Pakistan after a gap of four years. (The last career ambassador relinquished his charge in 2018.)
It is virtually impossible to delink the ostensible sea change in America’s willingness to engage with Pakistan to the change in government that transpired this summer. Possibly in a bid to rebuild ties with the Pakistani establishment, Khan is said to now be contemplating softening his party’s extreme stance on the United States. Interestingly enough, it didn’t help that this hard-line position also didn’t sit comfortably with a sizable Pakistani-American diaspora that forms a key part of Khan’s base and which willingly sends remittances back to support the economy. As part of what may be called an internal reset, former U.S. diplomat and lobbyist Robin Raphel met with Khan at his Bani Gala residence this week, albeit in a private capacity. And in an interview to a top television anchor at around the same time, Khan said he was not opposed to Pakistan enjoying a good relationship with the United States, though he added that Pakistan “should not be used like we were used during the war on terror.”
Khan will have to continue to define the parameters of what he considers acceptable in the relationship. In a 2021 television interview, for instance, Khan said Pakistan would “absolutely not” allow the CIA to use bases on its soil for cross-border counterterrorism missions once U.S. forces withdrew from Afghanistan. Although that sentiment is largely shared by parties across the Pakistani political spectrum, high-ranking officials between the two countries have held exploratory discussions about ways to bolster security and counterterrorism mechanisms in the region. It remains to be seen what those mechanisms could look like, but there are a few possibilities. Last month, the United States killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a drone strike in Afghanistan that prompted the Afghan Taliban to accuse Pakistan of allowing its airspace to be used for the strike.
Pakistan’s foreign office deftly sidestepped the allegation; still, the resumption of the sale of F-16 spare parts to Pakistan is likely to reinvigorate the conversation around the extent and potential of Pakistani-U.S. counterterrorism cooperation and the Pakistan Army’s willingness to let America back into the country on the ground and in its skies. The Pakistan Army no doubt sees the upside as leveraging counterterrorism cooperation to target Pakistani Taliban militants operating from Afghanistan. The government, meanwhile, would like to maximize international assistance to rebuild Pakistan’s economy and infrastructure devastated by recent and ongoing flooding.
A partnership could potentially have considerable benefits for the United States. By reengaging Pakistan, the United States will diversify its investments in South Asia and in the Indo-Pacific. This may be valuable given India’s insistence that it be allowed to maintain ties with Russia despite the war in Ukraine, which could in time lead some in Washington to privately question India’s long-term reliability as a key American partner in the Indo-Pacific. Although India remains an important partner for the United States for the most part, the United States has been unsuccessful in trying to coax a change in India’s position on Russia. Thus far, U.S. officials have been standing firm on their sale of F-16 spare parts to Pakistan despite criticism from India—signaling perhaps that they too are not averse to hedging.
Back in Pakistan, Khan is savvy enough to recognize a shift in attitudes. It is likely that as temperatures cool and the floodwaters slowly recede, Khan may, somewhat begrudgingly, modulate his anti-U.S. rhetoric. The catch is that Khan actually remains massively popular in Pakistan, and it is widely expected that he will return to power in the next general election—with or without the establishment’s support. A key question for the Pakistan Army, then, is whether it wants Khan in power as a friend or as a foe. The latter would be bad for civil-military relations in the country, and it would also be singularly unhelpful for the country’s longer-term efforts to resuscitate its complicated relationship with America.
Fahd Humayun is an assistant professor of political science at Tufts University.
This article was originally published on Foreign Policy. Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy