Pakistan-US Relations: How to Bridge the Widening Gap

2 September 2021 Brigadier Saleem Qamar Butt (Rtd), FDI Associate Download PDF

The United States and Pakistan must achieve a strategically beneficial and sustainable relationship because, despite global strategic realignments, the international community has never been more interdependent and interactive. Ultimately, both countries need to realise that extremes can and must be avoided and the middle ground on almost all issues should be explored.


Key Points

  • The US and Pakistan must achieve a strategically beneficial and sustainable relationship because, despite global strategic realignments, the international community has never been more interdependent and interactive as it currently is.
  • Kashmir will remain a potential flashpoint; hence, the sooner the US plays a positive role in resolving that dispute, the better for its global stature, international peace and its relationships with both the countries.
  • The US-Pakistan relationship ought to be based on the principles of equality, diplomatic reciprocity to counterparts, mutual respect and trust by shedding the prisms of Afghanistan and India.
  • The US and Pakistan must both realise that extremes can and must be avoided and the middle ground on almost all issues should be explored.



I recently read a short paper titled ‘The Future of US Cooperation with Pakistan’, co-authored by General Joseph Votel (Ret.), who was commander of CENTCOM from March 2016 to March 2019, and Lt. Gen. Michael K. Nagata (Ret.), who was director of strategy for the US National Counterterrorism Centre from 2016 to 2019. I had the opportunity to meet General Votel as senior military and intelligence representative and always appreciated his professional acumen, sober outlook and mature understanding of Pakistan’s predicament, which was accentuated by the US intervention in Afghanistan. Suffice to say that my hard-hitting rebuttal to the arguments of the Afghan representatives and some others who supported their malicious narratives, spitting Indian venom in Afghan Dari at CENTCOM and other places, was always heard patiently and advice taken positively by the American officers during General Votel’s tenure at CENTCOM. The quoted paper further improved my appreciation and positive image of both the authors.



The paper was first published by the Middle East Institute, USA. I would like to quote some excerpts from that (in italics) and give my point of view based on first-hand experience for the benefit of contemporary policy- and decision-makers in both Pakistan and the United States. The article states, ‘The United States and Pakistan have had a complex and often disappointing “love-hate” relationship since 1947 — one severely tested during the 20-year U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan. We believe the time has come for serious policy consideration of whether and how both nations can achieve a more strategically beneficial and sustainable post-intervention relationship between the American and Pakistani governments and their populations’. In my reckoning, that reasoning is predicated upon a mix of human, geo-economic and geo-security strategic imperatives that can still serve both countries because, despite global strategic realignments, the international community has never been more interdependent and interactive as it currently is. Therefore, isolation, “diplomatic annoyance mode” or coercion are poorly-conceived options and only trigger unnatural alliances and the exercise of other riskier options. The same has happened due to the US’s choice of India as a new strategic partner for misperceived dividends in Afghanistan, the Central Asian republics and the Asia-Pacific region, and relegating Pakistan, despite the strategic role that it played in favour of the US from the 1950s until 2021.

The paper states that ‘Whatever U.S. strategic concerns may be about the future of Afghanistan, the course and direction of Pakistan’s strategic choices in coming years will also matter to the United States. There are a variety of reasons for this’. According to the paper’s rationale, Pakistan’s nuclear capability, the animosity between India and Pakistan with Kashmir being a flash point, Pakistan’s potential to act as a bridge due its ties with Muslim-majority countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other bordering countries, and its network of relationships in an era of “great power competition” is viewed as a potential strategic benefit to the great powers like the US and China. Lastly, despite its significant political and economic difficulties, Pakistan’s potential as a growing technology provider, with its youthful population and worldwide diaspora of Pakistani doctors, scientists, academics and other professionals, leads it to be perceived as an increasingly important player in the global community. In my opinion, all of those factors, which are highlighted by both the insightful veterans, are genuine expressions of realpolitik; the new strategic preference for India to checkmate the spectacular rise of China, as well as a resurgent Russia, does not necessarily equate to dumping and punishing a time-tested ally.

Pakistan’s Strategic Nuclear Capability is its survival kit to prevent any foreign aggression. It focuses primarily on deterring aggressive overtures from India, ironically at present under a hard-core Rastriya Seva Sangh follower like Prime Minister Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Pakistan’s American counterparts know very well that without a resolution of the Kashmiri humanitarian and political issue in accordance with UN Resolutions, Kashmir will remain a potential flash point. Hence, the sooner the US plays a positive role in the UN Security Council to resolve this 72-year-old dispute, the better for its global stature, international peace and its better strategic relations with both countries. Pakistan provided a diplomatic bridge for the US to China in the 1970s, as well as to many Muslim countries since then, including the peace dialogue with the Afghan Taliban, despite continued attempts launched by India from Afghan soil to hinder those talks, with the full support of the US-installed puppet Afghan governments, the India-Afghan intelligence services (RAW and NDS) nexus, with the CIA and the Pentagon looking the other way, in addition to coercion by international financial institutions and the hypocritical Financial Action Task Force, as publicly admitted by the Indian Foreign Minister.

The incidents of 2011 alone, like Blackwater/Xe Services contractor Raymond Davis killing innocent civilians in Lahore as an extension of the CIA network in Pakistan, including the deployment of hundreds of covert operators, the assassination of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad by double/triple-crossing, and the killing of more than two dozen troops and officers at Salalah post on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in the Mohmand area, are few examples of US/CIA double-dealing in the name of a lack of trust. From Pakistan’s perspective, this is tantamount to betrayal and backstabbing and is testimony to my hypothesis in “The Pentagon’s Foolish Friends”, which was published on 3 August 2021.

Both Generals Votel and Nagata acknowledge ‘the sources of “weariness and wariness” that U.S. policymakers, in both Democratic and Republican administrations, often associate with strategic discussions on Pakistan with subsequent U.S. government’s reluctance toward undertaking any kind of strategic interaction or rapprochement with Pakistan because of (mis)perceived betrayals’. They also admit that understanding the enormous complexities of Pakistan’s relationships, influence and strategic choices in the South Asia milieu can be intellectually challenging and draining. What they need to factor in for clarity of thought and for better advocacy in improving understanding between the two countries is, however, to ponder over what has been pointed out in my article cited above.

The paper concludes that ‘the only thing harder than establishing a functional and mutually beneficial relationship with Pakistan is living without one. Given unstable borders, a nuclear standoff with India, the continued presence of terrorist organizations, and the high potential for all of this to further disrupt our interests, there is no better alternative’. In their opinion, the areas worth exploring include ‘the possibility of planning, along with other like-minded international actors (both state and non-state), to manage the consequences of significant political instability and human suffering emerging from Afghanistan, including the possibility of substantial refugee flight into Pakistan’.

Needless to say, this is something that had remained remiss over the last twenty years, despite Pakistan’s consistent appeal that it is never too late for a good start. Second, ‘the possibility of counterterrorism cooperation against any terrorist threat that emerges from Afghanistan and prevents it from sowing further instability across the region’ e.g., working groups, forums, or exchanges without any positioning of U.S. intelligence or counterterrorism elements within its borders’. In my opinion, this should be a welcome step, provided that the Pentagon can prevail upon Langley and take the lead along with the Defence Intelligence Agency and the State Department, instead. If Pakistan could bring the US and Taliban to the negotiating table after two decades of meaningless war, the US should not be reluctant to talk to an old friend, who does not like to be treated as subservient despite being befooled repeatedly by meaningless titles such as “best non-NATO ally” and “frontline state in the war against terror”, which commenced with “you are with us or against us” and ended with “frenemy”. It must be underscored, instead, that this time around, the bilateral relationship ought to be wholesome and based on the principles of equality, diplomatic reciprocity to counterparts, mutual respect and trust by shedding the prisms of Afghanistan and India.

The hardest and trickiest part both writers contemplate is to ‘explore the possibility of enlisting Pakistan cooperation, and that of India, toward some type of partial de-escalation of tensions along their common borders and, with it, even a slight amelioration of the nuclear weapons threat’. Referring to dialogue initiated by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee over the de-escalation of tensions that included the highly emotional issue of Kashmir, both the US generals suggest that ‘U.S. antagonists such as China would probably take a dim view of such efforts, and we believe that might be a reason for doing so rather than a reason to flinch from it’. Well, American misperceptions about China’s stand on the resolution of the Kashmir issue and nuclear de-escalation notwithstanding, the thought is appreciated and, as stated earlier, the resolution of the Kashmir issue in accordance with the UN Resolutions and according to the aspirations of the original people of Kashmir (and not Indian citizens encouraged to move into Indian-occupied Kashmir to change its demography), deserves primary attention and action.

I concur with the positive thinking by both the US generals that is suggestive of moving past the deceitful narrative of ‘disappointment’, and urging the USA to ‘move beyond neuralgias and carefully weigh the strategic costs of whether trying to somehow partner with Pakistan is more, or less, than the cost of failing to do so. We believe, in the long run, it is likely to be less costly’. Let us learn from the blunders of the past and try to live in a more interdependent and economically-interconnected world whether through the Belt-Road Initiative/ China-Pakistan Economic Corridor or with supplements from the US and its allies. Countries don’t have to behave as a clock pendulum; extremes can be avoided and middle grounds on almost all issues ought to be explored.

About the Author

Now retired from the military, Brigadier Saleem Qamar Butt is a Geostrategic Analyst for the Pakistan Television Network and, as a freelance writer, has been published by the Daily Times, The Nation, Business News Pakistan, South Asia Pulse and South Asia Magazine.

In his military career, Brig. Butt graduated from the Command and Staff College, Camberley, UK (1993) and the Japanese Combined Arms Institution, Mt Fuji (1989). He commanded an infantry regiment along the Line of Control during an active conflict period, served as Chief of Operational Staff in a Corps headquarters operating along the Pakistan-Afghanistan borders and participated in the planning and execution of medium- and large-scale anti-terror operations. He has also served as an instructor in the School of Infantry and Tactics and Directing Staff at the Command and Staff College in Quetta, and as Pakistan’s Defence Attaché to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. From 2010 to 2017, he served as Deputy Director-General, Strategic Analysis for the Government of Pakistan with focus on Pakistan’s relations with the USA, all other countries of the American continent, Central Asia and Afghanistan. In March 2020, he was selected as one of the four-member group advising Prime Minister Imran Khan on foreign relations with the United States.

Brig. Butt has a Master’s Degree in International Relations and an MSc in Defence and Warfare Studies. He has an Executive Diploma in Project Management and has studied Arabic, Japanese and Russian.

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