“US President’s Letter: A New Chapter in US-Pakistan Ties”

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Qamar Bashir

By: Qamar Bashir

The HOB interviewer Jonathan Swan in June 2021 had questioned the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, “Would you allow the American government to have the CIA here in Pakistan to conduct cross-border counterterrorism missions against Al-Qaeda, ISIS or the Taliban?”. The answer was; there is no way we are going to allow any bases, any sort of action from Pakistani territory into Afghanistan. Absolutely not,”. This statement was projected by the PTI social media’s well oiled machine as an act of great bravery and  gallantry and was spinned inside and around the world as an evidence of Pakistan’s defiance of USA dictates and US bullying.

The entire leadership of the PTI capitalized on this statement, making it a rallying point in public meetings, media interviews, and press conferences. They sought to garner political mileage by invoking patriotic sentiments among the people of Pakistan. However, their bold defiance of the United States, the world’s sole superpower, proved to be a costly miscalculation. The repercussions soon became evident as the former Prime Minister’s government, already struggling, faced further challenges. The decision by the establishment to withdraw crucial support compounded the political instability, ultimately leading to the downfall of the PTI government.

Naturally, Imran Khan’s defiant statement was viewed by US policymakers as a challenge to their strategic interests in the region. They interpreted it as a signal of Pakistan asserting sovereignty and independence in its foreign policy decisions, especially concerning military cooperation with the United States and US’s counterterrorism interests in the region. Furthermore, it was perceived as potentially indicative of a shift in Pakistan’s alignment or a reevaluation of its relationship with the United States, a shift having significant implications for US security interests in South Asia and broader regional stability and prompted them to reassess their approach to engaging with Pakistan and managing bilateral relations.

The anger of the US president over the Prime Minister’s undiplomatic reply, “Absolutely not,” became apparent when, in August 2021, President Joe Biden made phone calls to nearly every country in the world but notably omitted contacting Imran Khan. This action was widely interpreted as an indication of disapproval of Khan’s stance on the Afghan policy by US policymakers. The decision by President Biden to exclude a phone call to former Prime Minister Imran Khan could have been perceived differently by US and Pakistani policymakers.

From the perspective of US policymakers, the decision to knowingly,  ignoring Imran Khan was a reflection of shifting priorities or diplomatic considerations and was a deliberate signal of their desire to reassess and recalibrate the US-Pakistan relationship based on evolving strategic interests and objectives.

The opposition in Pakistan of that time interpreted it  as a snub and a sign of waning importance in the eyes of the US fuelling perceptions of strained bilateral relations or a downgrading of Pakistan’s significance in US foreign policy priorities.

The culmination of US anger was manifested in the form of a secret communication, known as Cipher, between our Ambassador Asad Majeed and US Assistant Secretary of State, Donald Lu. Allegedly, this communication conveyed a clear message to Pakistan’s influential establishment to remove Imran Khan from power and install a compliant setup in the future government. This directive coincided with the IMF’s refusal to enter into a Standby Agreement, exacerbating fears of an impending default in Pakistan’s economy. The prospect of default sent waves of concern throughout the country’s powerful circles.

Allegedly, in an effort to avert imminent default and regain favor with the US, the establishment expedited a regime change operation. Initially, crucial support that was instrumental in maintaining Imran Khan’s government was withdrawn. Subsequently, Imran Khan was not only ousted from power but also faced over 200 legal cases and imprisonment. His marriage was deemed illegal, and his wife was also imprisoned. Imran Khan himself was permanently disqualified from holding office. The entire leadership of the PTI was either incarcerated or went into hiding. The PTI’s symbol and name were seized, and the party’s political capital was eroded. Allegedly, misguided PTI advocates, assuming control after the party lost its leadership, decided to merge with an unknown party, Sunni Itehad, thereby losing its brand identity. Despite initial electoral victories, the PTI transitioned from a winning majority, as per Form 45, to a defeated party as per form 47.

With this turn of events, the US appeared to have accomplished its primary objective: removing the independent-minded Imran Khan from power and punishing him for his defiance and confrontations with the US. Following the attainment of these goals, the IMF swiftly approved a Standby Agreement, disbursed over $ 3 billion with the last installment approved in January 2024, and signaled its readiness to engage Pakistan in another IMF program lasting at least three years.

The reward for regime change became apparent during Donald Lu’s testimony before a subcommittee of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs on March 20, 2024. In his remarks, Lu indirectly validated the legitimacy of the current government highlighting the United States’ commitment to supporting the newly installed government of Shahbaz Sharif in Pakistan, even in cases where certain policy decisions may appear contrary to US interests. However, the biggest reward was yet to come.

In an unprecedented and remarkable move, the President of the United States, the most powerful nation on the face of the earth, extended a letter to Shahbaz Sharif today (29 March, 2024), providing much-needed legitimacy to his government. In this letter, the President promised an “enduring partnership” between the two countries, deeming it critical for ensuring the security of their respective populations, as well as people around the world. He pledged that the United States would continue to stand with Pakistan in addressing the most pressing global and regional challenges of our time. Furthermore, he expressed a shared vision for a future characterized by greater health security, economic growth, and access to education for all. Additionally, the President underscored the importance of strengthening climate resilience, supporting sustainable agriculture and water management, advancing Pakistan’s recovery from the devastating floods of 2022, and protecting human rights.

Receiving a letter from the President of the United States after many years signifies a significant shift in diplomatic relations and underscores the importance of the relationship between the two countries. It indicates a renewed commitment to bilateral cooperation and partnership, as well as a recognition of Pakistan’s role in addressing global and regional challenges.

The letter symbolizes the United States’ acknowledgment of Pakistan’s government as legitimate and establishes a foundation for ongoing dialogue and collaboration on key issues of mutual interest. Additionally, it demonstrates a willingness on the part of the United States to engage constructively with Pakistan and work together towards common goals, including promoting security, economic growth, education, climate resilience, and human rights. Overall, receiving such a letter signifies a positive development in diplomatic ties and opens avenues for enhanced cooperation and engagement between the two nations.

However, a key consideration remains the extent to which Pakistan can align with the United States in its efforts to counter local, regional, and global terrorism. The epicenter of these challenges lies in Pakistan’s most challenging neighborhood, including India, Iran, and Afghanistan. Therefore, while the letter signifies potential opportunities for cooperation, navigating the complexities of regional dynamics and security concerns will remain paramount for Pakistan’s foreign policy decisions.

By: Qamar Bashir

Press Secretary to the President (Rtd)

Former Press Minister at Embassy of Pakistan to France

Former MD, SRBC