U.S.-Pakistan Relations Remain as Critical as Ever

On February 29, 2016, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Pakistan’s Advisor to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz, met in Washington to convene the sixth ministerial-level Pakistan-US Strategic Dialogue. Although few surprises came out of the meeting, such dialogue between the United States and Pakistan remains critical, particularly to address the five Pakistan-related issues that continue to attract Washington’s attention.

First, Pakistan is a nuclear-armed state that is building nuclear weapons at a faster rate than any other country in the world. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) 2015 yearbook, Pakistan possesses about 100 to 120 nuclear weapons. India, on the other hand, is estimated to have between 90 and 110 nuclear warheads. In 2013, the International Panel on Fissile Materials concluded that Pakistan possesses enough fissile material for over 200 weapons. The United States also remains concerned about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear warheads.

Particularly worrisome to American officials is the possibility of one of the several Pakistan-based terrorist groups taking possession of one of these warheads. Although Pakistani officials have repeatedly assured their American counterparts that the country’s nuclear weapons are well guarded and safe from terrorists, American officials seem less than convinced. While Pakistan is highly protective and secretive of its nuclear hardware, U.S. intelligence must continue to closely monitor all nuclear activities in Pakistan.

The almost 70-year old unresolved Kashmir dispute between Pakistan and India is a second key concern. The issue remains a core source of tension between the two nuclear-armed South Asian states. More importantly, until resolved, Pakistan-based terrorist groups – often supported by elements of the Pakistan military – will continue to use the Kashmir dispute as an excuse to conduct cross-border attacks into India, as was the case with the Mumbai attacks in 2008. The United States harbors a deep concern that such attacks will occur again and eventually pressure India’s leadership to respond militarily against Pakistan.

At the end of February’s Strategic Dialogue, a jointly issued statement emphasized the need for the peaceful resolution of the Kashmir issue. To placate the Indians, the joint statement also reaffirmed Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s commitment to bring to justice the perpetrators of the January 2016 attack on India’s Pathankot airbase. The statement pressures Pakistan to take action against the terrorist groups behind the attack. India’s Foreign Secretary, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, also recently increased pressure on Pakistan by demanding Pakistani authorities investigate the airbase before resuming bilateral talks. The Obama administration must take the joint statement one step further and urge Pakistan to find and hand over those responsible for the terrorist attacks. Pakistan’s ability to deliver the culprits to the Indians would confirm Islamabad’s commitment to this issue.

Pakistan’s support, both direct and indirect, for various terrorist groups in Kashmir and Afghanistan is a third issue of serious concern for the United States. Pakistan has provided various degrees of support to the Taliban since 2001, which was recently confirmed by Sartaj Aziz. While the Pakistani military’s support for the Taliban has somewhat diminished since launching a large-scale military operation in June 2014 to eliminate terrorists, many Afghan Taliban leaders and fighters still hide on the Pakistani side of the border. Pakistan will be critical in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table and in finding a peaceful solution to the present conflict in Afghanistan. Pressure from Washington will remain key in ensuring the Pakistani government can sway the Taliban to come to the negotiating table.

A fourth issue of interest to Washington policy-makers is Pakistan’s ever-deepening relationship with China. This has become an even more immediate concern given China’s April 2015 decision to invest $46 billion into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. This enormous project, which dwarfs the type and amount of American economic assistance to Pakistan, will take about 15 years to complete. It includes investment in gas and oil pipelines, coal, solar, wind, and hydro-energy plants, roads, railroads, telecommunications, and other critically important infrastructural upgrades.

An important element of CPEC is the development of the Indian Ocean port of Gwadar, which China has operating rights to for the next 50 years. Gwadar will connect with the western Chinese city of Kashgar by upgrading the Karakoram highway. These infrastructural projects will also help Pakistan deepen its economic relationship with both China and its neighbors in Afghanistan and Iran, while also facilitating the development of its trade links with Central Asian states.

CPEC is good news for Pakistan and should be welcomed by the United States for its potential to help Islamabad address the country’s serious energy deficiencies and economic frailty. However, CPEC also brings Pakistan even deeper into China’s geo-strategic orbit. Moreover, with China’s unimpeded access to the port of Gwadar, which could possibly be upgraded into a Chinese naval facility, Pakistan’s role in facilitating China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean could be critical.

Needless to say, the increasing naval competition in the Indian Ocean caused by China’s growing presence will have serious ramifications on the region’s stability. As far as U.S. policy towards CPEC is concerned, it is critical that the United States continues its rebalancing efforts in the Indo-Pacific region, which began with President Obama’s “pivot” in 2011. Among other reasons, rebalancing will allow the United States to continue to monitor China’s advancement in the region and to reassure its regional allies of its long-term security commitment.

Although the United States has favored India over Pakistan in its long-term geo-political calculations in South Asia, one final issue makes Pakistan an important factor in Washington’s approach to the region. Pakistan is a key geo-strategic location at the crossroads of the Middle East, Southwest Asia, and South Asia. Moreover, with its mixed Sunni and Shia population, Pakistan is also a sectarian bridge between two regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran. It has been able to cultivate good relations with both nations and has the potential to build a significant economic relationship with Iran now that international sanctions against Iran have been lifted. Although there is not much the United States can accomplish by directly intervening in Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran, it must continue to encourage Pakistan’s unique relationship with both countries to help maintain stability in the region.

In light of the five issues discussed above, it is critical that Washington continues to pay close attention to developments in Pakistan. Regular strategic dialogues held between Pakistan and the United States will remain important in building much-needed good faith between both countries and giving high-level policy-makers an opportunity to discuss issues relevant to the South Asian region and beyond.