A rollercoaster-like bilateral relationship between Pakistan and the US is now in a deeply mistrustful phase. Interestingly, their friendship begins with strategic interest and ends up with mistrust. Pakistan engaged with the United States with its diplomatic interests and received conditional military and bilateral economic support. The US initiated economic aid programs for Pakistan, benefiting the general public and strengthening institutions for better performance. Since 2002-2011 under the coalition partnership, US Government released US$ 11.4 billion for military support to counter terrorism under the strategic partnership and US$ 6.08 billion for civilian programs. The larger chunk of aid went to the military and here begins the story of distrust on wishful performance. The war against terrorism was amazingly strategic military fought with militants and people sacrificed thousands of lives and still fighting with the ideology of called fundamentalism.
Given the recent dramatic changes in the region after the US withdrawal and the rise of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan, the US government has now begun to review the relationship with Pakistan. Last year, in a congressional hearing meeting on the situation in Afghanistan, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley rhetorically criticized the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan and promised to pursue the players behind this. On the civilian side, 22 Republican lawmakers proposed a bill for sanctions on the new Taliban government in Afghanistan, and on all the supporters of that government. The euphemistic statements are a clear message for Pakistan that it can count more on the coalition partnership.
The US rethink of relations with Pakistan comes at a time of increasing religious fundamentalism gaining a grip over Pakistani society. There has been a dramatic rise in the activities of ultra-radical religious groups in Pakistan that have attacked public property, killed people in extrajudicial ways, waged insurgencies, violated laws and attacked police and security forces. Their activities have taken their toll on common people who are already overloaded with economic burdens. Both the state and people are feeling insecure in general. These developments naturally have their impact on foreign policy too.
Washington’s recent shift of diplomatic policy towards Pakistan is creating a favourable environment for fundamentalists to weaken the pillars of peace and democracy – not just in Pakistan but for the region as a whole
With the support of the US government, there were many educational and other institutions engaged with Pakistan. In fact, Pakistani youth were engaged with programmes that emphasised democracy and rule of law – with a significant level of people-to-people contact and cultural exchange that reached thousands of youth and professionals.
Many youth were engaged in the pursuit of higher education in Western institutions. This group of youth, though smaller in count, was larger in terms of the productive activities it engaged in. Under the US government cultural exchange programs, Pakistani students from schools and universities were provided opportunities to learn and share their experiences with other societies. They were placed in mostly accredited schools and colleges of the US and were accommodated temporarily with American families. All of this was playing a role also in helping to provide some sort of positive alternative to religious extremism.
The beginning of frosty relations and a bitter resentment for Pakistan has been observed since President Biden has taken charge. Washington’s recent shift of diplomatic policy towards Pakistan is creating a favourable environment for fundamentalists to weaken the pillars of peace and democracy – not just in Pakistan but for the region as a whole. The Biden administration has to reconsider its approach and renew its emphasis upon civilian support programs for engaging Pakistani youth in a transition towards peace, democracy and rule of law.
Reinvesting in people generally, and youth and women in particular, is the best possibility to address the challenges of intolerance, radicalism and fundamentalism. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) says that 64% of the population of Pakistan is below the age of 30. This is an opportunity for dialogue.
The US government should come forward to ensure peace building initiatives in Pakistan. In this regard, the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) and its work serve as an admirable model. Simultaneously engaging youth, women and policymakers could improve the output of individuals and institutions alike. And it is that kind of capacity-building in society which will not only stave off the threat of violent extremism but also its security impact on the region and the world.