Pakistanis protest US drone strikes. Photo: Flickr Commons
Pakistanis protest US drone strikes. Photo: Flickr Commons

A bipartisan bill introduced in the US Congress last week seeks to end Pakistan’s status as a major non-Nato ally in the US-led “war on terror.”

The bill, introduced by Ted Poe, a Republican member of the Congress’s Foreign Affairs Committee and chairman of a sub-committee on terrorism and nuclear proliferation, hasn’t come in isolation. Rather, it has been tabled at a time when the Trump administration itself is contemplating changes in the US approach to Pakistan aimed at bringing the latter’s policies in the region more in line with Washington’s.

The bill and the policy changes implicitly seeking to compel Pakistan to change its position vis-à-vis the Afghan Taliban and the incumbent Afghan government are making headlines just when Pakistan has joined the China and Russia-led Shanghai Co-operation Organization, a regional platform that has quite different ideas about bringing the Afghan war to an end, emphasizing negotiations with the Taliban.

“Pakistan must be held accountable for the American blood on its hands,” said Poe, and must be stopped from acting as “a Benedict Arnold ally of the United States,” referring to an 18th-century American general who famously defected to the British army.

The language of the bill and the charge sheet Poe went on to read to make his case against Pakistan reflect the growing distance between Pakistan and the US.

The resumption of drone attacks inside Pakistan against Afghan Taliban hideouts is part of the Trump administration’s new approach to the Afghan problem

The resumption of drone attacks inside Pakistan against Afghan Taliban hideouts is part of the Trump administration’s new approach to the Afghan problem. It was recently spelled out by Secretary of Defense James Mattis at a hearing to Armed Services Committee, where he said the US would be “taking a regional approach” to the Afghan war.

Taken together with the policy changes vis-à-vis Pakistan, the “regional approach” doesn’t appear to be mainly concerned with catering to the regional states’ interests. On the contrary, it appears to be more focused on forcing a change in Pakistan, which the US government believes is explicitly acting against its interests.

This is also evident in a separate report submitted to the US Congress by the Pentagon that accused Pakistan of supporting Afghanistan-focused militant groups, including the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, who it said retained “freedom of action” within Pakistan. It called Pakistan “the most influential external actor affecting Afghan stability.”

Pakistan’s stated position, therefore, has to change in order for US forces, which will soon be bolstered by a fresh deployment of 5,000 troops, to be successful in Afghanistan.

The policy changes now being contemplated, dubbed the “Mattis Surge” in Pakistan, don’t, however, have their roots in the regional review Mattis conducted during his visit to Afghanistan and Pakistan in April 2017.

The policy shift follows the appointment of Lisa Curtis as the National Security Council’s director for South and Central Asia.

Curtis strongly advocates pressuring Pakistan to align its policies with those of the US in Afghanistan in order to help it win the war.

Prior to becoming senior director for South and Central Asia, Curtis co-authored a report with Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to Washington, in which they recommended that the Trump administration warn Pakistan that its major non-Nato ally status could be revoked in six months.

“Thinking of Pakistan as an ally will continue to create problems for the next administration as it did for the last one,” said the February report, published by the Hudson Institute.

Given the approach being contemplated, it is reasonable to expect that Pakistan-US bilateral relations will hit a new low in the near future.

This hardening of relations will not be not surprising given the two countries’ chequered diplomatic history. However,  it is coming at a time when Pakistan’s relations with China and Russia have never been better — something that Pakistan’s foreign office officials believe will help them considerably reduce or even  neutralize the pressure these changes will put on their country.

Similarly, while no US official has said anything about severing relations with Pakistan, it is obvious that downsizing or even blocking military aid to Pakistan will not be enough to force policy changes in the country.

“Ultimately, the changes reinforce not only a mutual trust deficit between both countries but also signify a clear absence of dialogue and willingness to accommodate each other’s interests in this behalf to reduce the gap,” one Pakistan official, who did not want to be identified, told Asia Times.

But any Pakistani attempt to counter US pressure by playing the Sino-Russia card is unlikely to succeed, as it is really only a bargaining chip. Pakistan’s strong ties with China notwithstanding, its relations with Russia have not evolved to a point where Moscow would be willing to cater to its military needs to the extent that the US already does.

At the same time, the ever-growing co-operation between Russia and Pakistan with regard to Afghanistan is not hidden and every meeting contains a “silver lining” for better future relations, the Pakistani official said.

Therefore, if the US pushes Pakistan hard and follows up on cutting aid, it might end up driving the latter well into the Russian camp -something that would work against Washington’s interests, making- victory in Afghanistan even more difficult to achieve.

Salman Rafi

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistan based independent journalist and a research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His areas of interest include South and West Asian Geo-politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at

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