US-Pakistan Relations Ebb After Afghanistan Withdrawal

The last time U.S.-Pakistan relations turned cold was in the early 1990s, after Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan and the U.S. no longer needed Pakistan’s support and regional intelligence. Following last year’s U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, after two decades of costly war that forced the countries to work closely, Washington and Islamabad again appear to be distancing from each other on major issues. 

“Afghanistan has long been the lens through which Washington views its relations with Islamabad,” Michael Kugelman, an expert at the Wilson Center, told VOA.  

For Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of some 225 million people, having close relations with a global power is vital in order for it to maintain balance with its arch-enemy India, at least militarily, and ease domestic economic problems. 

From the start of the war in Afghanistan to its 2021 conclusion, the U.S. committed more than $32.5 billion in civilian and military aid to Pakistan, according to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan. 

With U.S. military assistance suspended in 2018 and civilian aid reduced to about $300 million for 2022, Pakistani authorities have turned to other countries for help.  

Late last month, as Russian troops started invading Ukraine, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan visited the Kremlin seeking closer ties and economic assistance. Khan said Pakistan will continue to import wheat and gas from Russia despite widespread international sanctions.

Of the 193 U.N. member states, 141 voted in early March to condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine, but Pakistan was conspicuously missing from the list.   

Khan has defied international calls for Pakistan to condemn the Russian invasion, saying, “What do you think of us? Are we your slaves … that whatever you say, we will do?”  

Chinese weapons  

Pakistan spent more than $750 million on weapons imports from China last year, according to a database compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. 

Last week, Pakistan’s air force displayed its first batch of Chinese-built J-10C fighter jets. Although Islamabad hasn’t said how many aircraft were acquired in the deal, Pakistani officials had spoken of up to 25 jets in prior news reports. 

The Pakistani army has long been a stable client for China’s weapons market, but it also used to purchase from the U.S. 

In 2010, during the height of U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan, Pakistan imported more than $1 billion worth of weapons from the U.S., including several F-16 fighter jets.  

In 2021, there were no U.S. weapons sales to Pakistan.  

Pakistan and China, long-established regional allies, have recently expanded trade, investment and economic relations. 

During the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games in February, which the U.S. diplomatically boycotted, Prime Minister Khan was in the Chinese capital to sign agreements on cooperation in several areas including space, digitization, technical assistance and culture.

“The trend lines for Pakistan’s relations with China are more positive than they are for its relationship with the U.S.,” Kugelman said, adding that the prospects for U.S.-Pakistan relations appear “tenuous at best.”  

Terrorism concerns  

Pakistani authorities have accused the U.S. government of having an opportunistic and sometimes even abusive relationship with Pakistan.  

“Whenever the U.S. needed us, they established relations and Pakistan became a frontline state, and then abandoned it and slapped sanctions on us,” Khan was quoted as telling Pakistani media outlets on February 11.  

In the U.S., however, the Pakistani government is seen as dishonest, particularly in tackling Islamic militancy and terrorism in the region.  

Pakistan has “really been nothing short of duplicitous for years,” U.S. Congressman Scott Perry told VOA, adding that the country was a hotbed of many terrorist groups.  

Last week, Perry introduced a bill that calls for a designation of Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism.  

It is too early to say whether the bill will be passed, but when asked why he introduced it now, seven months after the U.S. exited Afghanistan, Perry talked about Pakistan’s ties to Russia.  

“While we’re trying to get the world united against Russia, [Pakistan] won’t take a vote at the U.N. and they’re actually lobbying Russia to build a pipeline between Russia and Pakistan,” Perry said.  

Despite inflammatory statements in both Pakistan and the U.S., neither country appears to be seeking a permanent split, said Kugelman of the Wilson Center.  

“It would be wrong to suggest that Pakistan’s deepening alliance with China and growing partnerships with other U.S. rivals signals the end of U.S.-Pakistan relations. There’s still an appetite in Islamabad for some degree of partnership.”