The Limits Of A Friendship

The Pakistani foreign minister’s recent visit to the United States highlights some troubling trends in the bilateral relationship.

Last month, during the height of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi made what his government and supporters have described as a successful visit to the United States to advocate for the Palestinian cause. Numerous data points — many high-level meetings, a stirring speech at the UN General Assembly, and a warm statement of thanks from the Palestinian ambassador to Pakistan — bear this assessment out.

The visit, however, featured some controversy after the foreign minister made some unsavory remarks on CNN that many in the United States, and elsewhere outside Pakistan, regarded as blatantly antisemitic. These comments, coupled with the differing perceptions that Washington and Islamabad had of Qureshi’s visit to the United States, highlight a wider and growing disconnect in an always-volatile US–Pakistan relationship. This is a bad sign — and also bad timing, as the Biden administration completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan, which has already increased tensions in the bilateral relationship.

UNPACKING THE DISCONNECT

Pakistan has long championed the cause of the Palestinians in global forums, often linking it to the Kashmir issue — something Pakistani leaders describe as the country’s “jugular vein” — and categorically refusing to ever recognize Israel until there is a Palestinian state. Islamabad has maintained this position even as some Muslim-majority countries have normalized ties with Israel in recent months.

Unsurprisingly, once the conflict in Gaza began, Islamabad rapidly mobilized. Qureshi pursued diplomacy with a level of intensity witnessed in few other countries. He had calls with his Palestinian, Egyptian, Saudi, Afghan, Chinese, and US counterparts. He gave an impassioned speech to Pakistan’s parliament. He flew to Turkey for meetings, before boarding a plane to New York with the Turkish, Palestinian, and Sudanese foreign ministers. He hosted a working dinner with the Organization of Islamic Countries, met with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and delivered a speech to the General Assembly.

Then came the moment that would be controversial for many outside of Pakistan, and especially for Jews. During an interview with CNN, he said that Israel has “deep pockets” and “controls media.” When the anchor called him out for his comment, he rejected the claim that his words were antisemitic. Many others, however, disagreed — from the prominent journalist Mehdi Hasan and New York Times columnist Bret Stephens to Jewish media outlets and Israeli diplomats. For these observers and others, Qureshi had used — likely inadvertently, due to a lack of awareness — terms long associated with antisemitic tropes that far predate Israel’s existence and that have been used by the Nazis, and more recently by white supremacists.

Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s CNN interview, and Islamabad’s response to it, won’t win Pakistan new friends in Washington.

Pakistanis, however, rushed to Qureshi’s defense with supportive words online soon after his interview was aired. He returned home to a hero’s welcome, with members of the ruling party garlanding him with flowers at the airport and congratulating him for his bold advocacy on behalf of the Palestinians. For Washington, though, there was nothing special about Qureshi’s trip. His public messaging about Israel, which used terms like apartheid, occupation, genocide, and deployed by Israel’s harshest critics and the Palestinians’ most fervent supporters, will never play well with Washington, Israel’s closest ally. And while Qureshi’s repeated calls for a ceasefire were likely noted and appreciated, it was Egypt that helped craft the truce.

Qureshi’s CNN interview, and Islamabad’s response to it, won’t win Pakistan new friends in Washington. Qureshi mocked those that criticized his controversial words. “Thank you, Bianna Golodryga,” he said, a reference to his CNN interviewer, who labeled his language as antisemitic. “I wish I had more of you.” He also insisted his interview was well received. A Pakistani Foreign Ministry statement declared that Qureshi’s remarks could not be “construed as antisemitic by any stretch of the imagination.” Meanwhile, Qureshi’s comments about Israel having deep pockets and controlling media garnered praise from Pakistani right-wing nationalists and left-wing progressives alike. Pakistanis even started a #DeepPockets hashtag on Twitter. Few of them acknowledged that Qureshi’s comments may be offensive to many Jews or that the words drew on themes about Jews that originated in an infamous antisemitic publication from 1905, long before the formation of the state of Israel, and were later incorporated into Nazi ideology.

To be sure, many Pakistanis weren’t aware of this historical context, and would therefore, find nothing antisemitic about Qureshi being critical of the Israeli state. There is no reason to believe that Qureshi himself is antisemitic. As Pakistan’s top diplomat, however, Qureshi would ideally have been more mindful of the historical context and ugly connotations associated with the terms he used, or at least aware that using these terms would not be received positively by many of those watching his interview around the world. His use of such highly charged terms scored him some political points at home, with Pakistanis across the political spectrum applauding him for his tough talk on Israel. But for many in the United States and beyond, his words were undiplomatic and highly offensive.

WHAT ARE THE ROADBLOCKS TO A MORE ROBUST RELATIONSHIP?

This isn’t to suggest the United States and Pakistan need to be on the same page on the Palestinian issue, or on rejecting antisemitism, to enjoy a strong relationship. The long, deep partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia, which continues to endure despite some recent tensions, is a notable example (that said, Riyadh in recent months has taken some major steps to combat antisemitism). Still, Qureshi’s activities last month can be viewed as the latest indication of divergence and disconnect between the two countries.

Since President Joe Biden took office, Pakistani authorities have called for a broader, more multifaceted relationship with Washington. The Biden White House, however, is focused laser-like on its withdrawal from Afghanistan. Accordingly, its priorities with Islamabad have largely revolved around that issue. Pakistani officials have privately shared with me their disappointment about the administration being unwilling to widen the lens in its dealings with Islamabad. Indeed, most high-level US exchanges with Pakistan in the Biden era have featured security officials (a call between US Trade Representative Katherine Tai and Pakistani commerce advisor Abdul Razak Dawood on trade cooperation is one exception).

Furthermore, in recent months, Pakistan has articulated a new vision for global engagement that revolves around geoeconomics, not geopolitics. It wants to be viewed as a locus for cooperation around connectivity and trade. It has stepped up discussions with Afghanistan and several central Asia states about new infrastructure projects, and it continues to partner with Beijing on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor — the Pakistan component of the Belt and Road Initiative. Islamabad’s new pitch, however, hasn’t generated much traction in Washington, not just because US officials still view Islamabad through a security lens, but because of perceptions that the economic and investment environment — even with drastic reductions in terrorist violence in recent years — is not conducive for deeper US economic engagement. American officials and analysts alike point to an absence of economic reforms needed to generate a more enabling environment for investors.

Pakistan’s prime partners in its new geoeconomics-focused policy are problematic players for Washington as well. Islamabad’s two fastest-growing bilateral relationships are with Russia and Turkey, while China remains Pakistan’s closest ally. For Washington, the idea of building a new economic partnership with the best friend of its biggest strategic rival amounts to a policy circle that can’t be squared. The Biden administration, like its predecessor, is keen to work with like-minded partners in the Quad and beyond by using new tools — such as the Defense Finance Corporation and Blue Dot Network — to pursue new infrastructure projects in and across Asia. Such efforts, however, are meant to counter Chinese investments, not complement them. US officials have given little indication that they intend to deploy these tools to Pakistan. Rather, the focus will likely be on closer US partners in the Indo-Pacific, as well as countries — including Bangladesh, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka — that are currently caught up in a strategic tug of war between India and China, and which the United States hopes to wean off Beijing and bring closer to New Delhi and Washington.

HOW AFGHANISTAN SETS THE CURRENT TONE 

Ironically, Qureshi’s visit to the United States coincided with, and was quickly followed by, a series of high-level bilateral engagements — but the focus was not Israeli–Palestinian issues. While at the UN, Qureshi spoke with several members of the Congressional Pakistan Caucus about the bilateral relationship. Soon after Qureshi’s return home, Pakistani National Security Advisor Moeed Yusuf met with his American counterpart Jake Sullivan in Geneva. A call between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa happened the same day. In the latter discussions, US officials likely pressed Pakistan to pressure the Taliban to reduce violence and remain committed to talks with the Afghan state. They also likely wanted to explore possibilities for counterterrorism cooperation post-withdrawal.

For the immediate term, US–Pakistan relations are in a relatively good place. So long as the fragile Afghan peace process survives, Islamabad will be willing to cooperate with Washington in pursuing it. That’s because any settlement would result in Pakistan’s Taliban ally holding a degree of power — an outcome that Islamabad, which seeks a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul — would favor. However, if the Taliban isn’t willing to play ball and the peace process collapses, Washington will likely fault Pakistan — which has more leverage over the Taliban than any other external player, due to the safe havens it has long provided to the insurgents’ leadership. So the relationship could eventually face fresh tensions.

CAN THE RELATIONSHIP IMPROVE?

A key determinant of the relationship’s future will be to what degree Islamabad helps Washington in its effort to maintain an Afghanistan-focused counterterrorism capacity outside Afghanistan after US troop withdrawal. There’s a strong precedent for Pakistan providing space for US intelligence assets (from Cold War-era listening posts to post-9/11 drones). But the obstacles are large. Pakistan’s ruling party and the general public strongly oppose the idea. The Biden administration, therefore, would need to make major concessions, such as the restoration of security assistance suspended since 2018. The New York Times recently reported that the two sides have held talks on the possibility of a new basing agreement for US forces, though negotiations have not made much progress. A more modest new counterterrorism accord, such as one focused on intelligence-sharing, is more realistic.

Fortunately, against the backdrop of an unsettled future, several correctives can help advance the relationship even while shielding it from its volatilities. One is to expand the scope for more cooperation within multilateral settings. Despite their differences, Washington and Islamabad share many goals that can be pursued multilaterally — from combating climate change and corruption to fighting piracy. Pakistan does boast global convening power — as evidenced by its hosting earlier this year of a six-day naval exercise on the Arabian Sea, part of an effort to promote cooperation to fight piracy and other crimes at sea. The United States was one of the 45 participating nations.

Additionally, Pakistan and the United States can create new non-official mechanisms — Track 2 dialogues, working groups, and the like — consisting of academics, analysts, and members of the private sector. These are arrangements that have taken place in the recent past, albeit for a short duration.   Such activities can explore pathways for cooperation around tackling climate change, pandemics, cyber attacks, and other shared threats, and their recommendations can be presented to each government.

Disconnects abound in US-Pakistan relations, with Qureshi’s activities during the recent Gaza crisis just the latest example. But there are still plenty of issues that bring the two together. It behooves them to work bilaterally and multilaterally to better address them.

Michael Kugelman is Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC.