Generally, a state’s relations with the outside world undergo some transformation with a change of its guard. Will this normal rule apply in the case of Islamabad’s ties with Washington after Shehbaz Sharif has taken over as Pakistan’s Prime Minister?
Observers say that Sharif’s rule is highly unlikely to make any difference in Islamabad’s ties with Washington. The political realities of Pakistan have been far different from those of the world’s prominent democracies, including India and the United States. Even when there is a civilian rule in Pakistan, the Army calls the shots, especially in defence and foreign policy matters.
Towards the end of his prime ministership, Imran Khan, arguably the most popular politician in Pakistan today, made some noises against Washington. In December last year, Khan declined the Joe Biden administration’s invitation to its Summit for Democracy. Before he was made to unceremoniously demit his office, Khan even accused the United States of conspiring, in coalescence with some local forces, to throw him out.
But Khan’s outbursts had little effect on Islamabad’s ties with Washington. Pakistan’s current Army Chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, has been all for closer ties with the United States. In his address at the Islamabad Security Dialogue forum this year, he said what would please Washington most: he dubbed the Russian invasion of Ukraine as “a huge tragedy. “Earlier, in his talk with US Charge d’ Affairs to Pakistan Angela Aggeler last year, Bajwa stressed the need to maintain Islamabad’s long-term and multi-faceted relationship with Washington.
Pertinently, the successive administrations in Washington have generally supported the Pakistani generals — from Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan to General Pervez Musharraf. The reasons for this are not far to seek. During the Cold War era, Pakistan was part of the Washington-devised South East Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) to checkmate the influence of Soviet communism in the region.
The Richard M. Nixon administration’s relations with the General Yahya Khan regime were so good that the former chose to overlook the then genocide the Pakistan Army was committing against its own people in the east (now Bangladesh), and then American National Security Advisor Henry A. Kissinger used Islamabad to facilitate his secret mission to China.
The Ronald Reagan administration found “the ruthless and vindictive” General Zia-ul Haq very useful in its campaign against the then Soviet Union in Afghanistan and extended him “unstinting support.” After the overthrow of the first Taliban rule in Afghanistan, then American President George W Bush praised General Musharraf for his role in dismantling the suspected terror linkages in Pakistan.
Despite occasional hiccups in their bilateral ties, the United States continues to consider Pakistan as one of its most trusted allies in Asia. It continues to have access to several military bases in Pakistan. The US military personnel serve in the Pakistan military as advisors. Pakistani military cadets attend the coveted US military academies and war colleges. The defence forces of the two nations conduct joint military exercises from time to time. Recently, the United States Navy ships visited Karachi and conducted a bilateral exercise with Pakistan Navy.
(The author is a New Delhi-based journalist)