A recently concluded six-day visit to Washington by Pakistan’s powerful military head, Chief of Army Staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, is being seen in both countries as a sign that Islamabad is seeking to mend sometimes-strained relations with the West.
Public statements released by officials from both countries emphasized finding areas to cooperate on, following years of mistrust and suspicion during the two-decade-long U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
Bajwa, whose second three-year term ends in a few weeks, was welcomed at the Defense Department by U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin for a meeting Tuesday with senior American military officials.
In a brief statement highlighting the 75-year history of relations between the U.S. and Pakistan, the Pentagon said, "This long-standing partnership continues today with discussions focused on opportunities to address key mutual defense interests." A day later, Austin tweeted a picture of himself greeting Bajwa (seen above).
According to a statement issued by ISPR, the Pakistani military's media wing, Gen. Bajwa also discussed deepening ties beyond security and intelligence. It said U.S. officials agreed that the historic ties between both countries "shall continue improving through economic ties, trade and investment" and the Bajwa stressed the need for continued assistance to Pakistan for flood relief and rehabilitation after this summer's devastating monsoon rains.
During his tour, Bajwa also met with White House National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, according to the Pakistani military’s media wing. The State Department declined to comment on “the specifics of private diplomatic conversations.”
This visit, Bajwa’s first since 2019, came more than a year after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Islamabad’s former ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, told VOA, however, that while Pakistan does not want to be ignored by the global power, the U.S. now has a more modest need for Pakistan.
Karman Bokhari, a security affairs expert and director of analytical development at New Lines Institute, a Washington-based think tank, told VOA the visit “is a sign that the state of Pakistan, not any particular government, wants to re-establish ties with the West.”
Following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban back in power, Bokhari said Washington and Islamabad are assessing “how Pakistan [will] help the U.S. keep a check on Afghan Taliban activity with regards to transnational jihadism and terrorism.”
“Related to it is Pakistan’s concern that the U.S. help with its efforts against the TTP,” he said.
TTP or Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, is a terrorist group that has mounted hundreds of deadly attacks on Pakistani military and civilian targets since 2007. Pakistani military operations have pushed the TTP leadership into Afghanistan, but its fighters remain on both sides of the border.
Bilateral relations between the United States and Pakistan have been troubled by mutual distrust, including the refusal of the previous administration in Islamabad to allow the U.S. access to its military bases for post-withdrawal counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan.
But Bokhari noted that cooperation between the two countries' military and intelligence services never stopped and said he expects that cooperation to continue.
Tamanna Salikuddin, director of the South Asia program at the U.S. Institute of Peace and an Obama-era National Security Council member, told VOA that since the conclusion of the Afghan war, relations between Washington and Islamabad will largely be determined by “the geopolitical competition, global competition, between U.S. and China.”
“So, where does Pakistan fit into that, especially given their strong military, security, economic ties with China — but also, I think, trade ties, longstanding security ties with the U.S.?” she asked.
America is Pakistan’s largest bilateral trade partner, with an annual trade volume of almost $6 billion. Neighboring China is the biggest state investor, with close to $60 billion in infrastructure projects through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) segment of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Pakistani civilian and military leaders have said they don’t want to choose between a “China camp” or a “U.S. camp,” and Haqqani said the U.S. neither can nor wants to replace China for Pakistan.
“Thirty percent of Pakistan's debt is currently owed to China. That means the United States would have to somehow pump billions of dollars into Pakistan to replace China. Considering that there is lack of trust between Pakistan and the United States, I don't see any appetite in the U.S. for putting that kind of money into Pakistan,” he said.
Just a few weeks before the Pakistani military chief’s visit to Washington, the Biden administration asked Congress to approve a $450 million foreign military sale to Pakistan to service the country’s F-16 fighter jets, most of which are decades old.
Despite this proposal, “The United States has not resumed large-scale bilateral security assistance to Pakistan,” the State Department told VOA. Such assistance has been suspended since 2018.
Nevertheless, the move irked India, which fears Pakistan could use the fighter planes against it, even though the sale agreement requires that the jets be used only for counterterrorism purposes.
“Now that India is closer to the United States than Pakistan is, they would like to keep it that way,” Haqqani said.
Gen. Bajwa’s arrival in Washington a few weeks before his term ends in late November fueled speculation he might be seeking U.S. support for a bid to extend his term for a second time.
According to Dawn News, Bajwa dispelled rumors he’s seeking an unprecedented third term, and analysts that spoke to VOA rejected the notion that Washington would get involved in the matter.
Salikuddin pointed out that Austin extended the invitation at the beginning of this year, long before Bajwa’s term was drawing to a close, and she said the delays were largely caused by Pakistan’s internal political turmoil.
Given that the army has ruled Pakistan for much of its existence, civilian governments remain unstable and anti-American sentiment is prevalent among the public, experts say the U.S. sees Pakistan’s military as a stable actor with which it can build a long-term relationship, regardless of who leads it.
As Bokhari put it, “the Americans know that they're not dealing with Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa as the person who's going to step down on November 29. They're dealing with the current chief of the Army staff, and they will continue with the office of the Chief of the Army Staff and everything that comes with it.”