Opinion Pakistan’s foreign minister calls for a reset. Washington should hear him out

Josh Rogin

Pakistan’s new civilian government is already under attack by the forces of recently removed prime minister Imran Khan, who is pushing the conspiracy theory that President Biden somehow orchestrated his ouster. Last week, the country’s new foreign minister came to the United States to explore yet another attempt to repair the U.S.-Pakistan alliance, which might look unsalvageable. Washington should hear him out.
Leaders in both U.S. political parties have largely written off Pakistan. Yet it is a major non-NATO ally, the world’s fifth-most-populous country and a nuclear power situated strategically among China, India, Afghanistan and Iran. After years of mutual distrust between Washington and Islamabad, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the idea that either side is capable — much less willing — to do the hard work of reviving the alliance.
But the basic argument for trying again is sound. And Pakistan’s new foreign minister, the son of two previous Pakistani leaders, believes that both nations can learn from the mistakes of the past. Besides, he told me, letting the alliance further deteriorate makes little sense. “The way in which this relationship progressed in recent years doesn’t serve the interests of the people of Pakistan, but it also doesn’t serve the interests of the people of America,” Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari told me in an interview. “And I still believe that Pakistan and the United States agree on far more than we disagree on.” Zardari, only 33 years old, brings with him to the job two giant legacies. His mother, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, led the Pakistani People’s Party in a fight to wrestle power from the military and intelligence agencies that have controlled Pakistan — mostly from the shadows — since its inception as a modern state. The first woman to lead a democratic, Muslim-majority country, she was assassinated in 2007.
His father, Asif Ali Zardari, was Pakistan’s president from 2008 until 2013. The Bhutto-Zardari family’s archenemy was three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Today, Sharif’s brother Shehbaz Sharif is the new prime minister and Zardari serves in his cabinet. “It’s like the Trumps and the Clintons being part of a coalition government,” Zardari said.
The main lesson Zardari took from his family’s epic battles with other powerful Pakistani institutions was that change should be pursued slowly and through negotiation, not confrontation. “Even though I’m young and I’m supposed to be a lot more idealistic and revolutionary, because of our [family’s] experience, I actually believe in evolution over revolution,” Zardari said.
Perhaps this strategy of lowering short-term expectations and focusing on incremental progress could be applied to the U.S.-Pakistan relationship as well. Although Khan’s accusations of U.S. meddling in Pakistan’s politics are ridiculous, they play off an anti-Americanism that has become deeply rooted in parts of the Pakistani polity. Likewise, in Washington, there’s no strong domestic political constituency for improving U.S.-Pakistan ties.
But there are reasons to think progress is possible, Zardari said. The main issue of contention, the war in Afghanistan, could now be an area of cooperation following Biden’s troop withdrawal last year. Now, the two countries’ interests there are largely aligned around encouraging the Taliban to behave better and bringing stability to the Afghan people.
“Now we can move beyond that disagreement without having to go back and litigate the past,” Zardari said. “There’s a lot more common ground now and less fog of war.”
Diversifying the relationship beyond military issues might also help, he said. In his meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in New York last week, they discussed moving toward more cooperation on trade, climate change, tech investment and food security.
Skeptics in Washington will quickly point out that the ultimate power in Pakistan still seems to reside with the generals and spy chiefs. Many in Washington are rightly critical of Pakistan for failing to condemn China’s human rights abuses and refusing to join Western sanctions against Russia for invading Ukraine. Don’t expect the Sharif-Zardari government to change those policies anytime soon. But unrealistic expectations on both sides are a big part of why the relationship got so bad in the first place.
“If we’re going to let our emotions get in the way of a constructive relationship, then we would both be cutting off our nose to spite our face,” Zardari said. “How do we tackle that? The only answer is engagement.” Those still not convinced must answer this question: What exactly is the better alternative? If Washington isn’t happy that the Pakistani military has the bulk of power and influence, engaging civilian leaders is a way to balance that out. If the United States doesn’t want Pakistan to go from being a U.S. ally to a Chinese client state, Zardari’s offer of a reset must be embraced, not ignored.

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