Home » ‘Inflection point’: US hearing on Pakistan shines light on complex ties | Politics News

‘Inflection point’: US hearing on Pakistan shines light on complex ties | Politics News

by Marko Florentino
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Islamabad, Pakistan – The US Congress will hold a hearing next week on the “future of democracy” in Pakistan and the state of relations between the two countries, weeks after a controversial election in Pakistan that the country’s biggest opposition party alleges was manipulated.

But foreign policy analysts said that the March 20 hearing of the subcommittee of the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs is unlikely to affect the direction of ties between the nations that have been rocky, though they have improved in the past two years.

Formally, Pakistan welcomed the hearing, saying that it hopes that deliberations “contribute to promoting positive dynamics in bilateral ties” between the two countries.

“Pakistan values its close relationship with the United States and believes in constructive engagement on all matters. And we respect the prerogative of legislative bodies to discuss and debate international issues,” the Pakistani foreign ministry spokesperson said on Thursday.

The hearing follows a letter that was endorsed by 31 Congress members, who wrote to President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken on February 29, urging them to not recognise the new Pakistani government and push for an investigation into alleged manipulation in elections.

Pakistan conducted its general polls last month, which were marred by widespread allegations of fraud, unusually delayed results and numerous other irregularities.

The biggest winners in the polls were Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) backed candidates, who won 93 seats, despite being denied the use of their electoral symbol, a cricket bat, days before the polls. The party’s leader, former Prime Minister Imran Khan, has been in prison since August 2023, and was convicted on multiple charges just before the elections. Numerous other party-backed candidates were unable to conduct election canvassing due to a crackdown by the authorities.

Despite winning the greatest number of seats, the PTI refused to form a coalition with either the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) or Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which won 75 and 54 seats respectively.

Subsequently, the PMLN and the PPP joined hands to form an alliance along with smaller parties to create the government, a near-repeat of a coalition they forged in April 2022, when the PTI and then-Prime Minister Imran Khan were removed from power through a parliamentary vote of no confidence.

Khan, who had been in power since August 2018, has repeatedly accused that his overthrow was engineered through a US-led conspiracy, in collusion with Pakistan’s powerful military establishment. Both the US and the Pakistani military have repeatedly rejected the allegations, describing them as false.

Pakistan held its general elections in February which were marred by widespread allegations of rigging. [Shahzaib Akber/EPA]
Pakistan held its general elections in February, which were marred by widespread allegations of rigging. [Shahzaib Akber/EPA]

The former cricketer-turn-politician specifically accused Donald Lu, a US Department of State

official, of delivering a message to Asad Majeed, Pakistan’s then-ambassador to the US, in which Washington allegedly suggested that Khan be removed from power for engaging with Russia despite the Ukraine war.

Lu, currently the assistant secretary of state looking after South and Central Asian affairs, will be appearing at the March 20 congressional hearing as a witness.

Earlier this year, Khan was sentenced to jail for 10 years along with his former colleague Shah Mahmood Qureshi on accusations of revealing state secrets, a case pertaining to Lu’s message, which was delivered via secret cable to Ambassador Majeed.

US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said on Thursday that the US administration looks forward to the congressional meeting, and echoed past statements rejecting the allegations against Lu.

“With respect to the underlying allegations against Assistant Secretary Lu, they’re false. They’ve always been false. You’ve heard me say that more than once, more than twice, more than 10 times probably. Of course, we take any threats towards US officials seriously and condemn any effort to threaten the safety and security of our diplomats,” he said while answering a question.

Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States, United Nations and the United Kingdom cautioned against reading too much into the subcommittee hearing.

“The diaspora in the US is generally supportive of the PTI and they have managed to push for a subcommittee hearing. But these hearings take place all the time, and they have little operational impact,” she told Al Jazeera.

Kamran Bokhari, senior director for the Washington, DC-based New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, said that the campaign against Pakistan’s new government among parts of the diaspora was mistakenly confusing domestic US politics with the prospects of foreign policy change.

“A local congressperson is willing to issue statements to pacify you for the sake of gaining voters’ trust and for their constituents. This subcommittee hearing is the result of local US politics, and has nothing to do with US government foreign policy,” he told Al Jazeera.

Abdul Basit, a research fellow at S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, concurred.

“Will it be consequential? Perhaps not. They [hearings] are mostly cut out for the gallery and optics. I don’t think it will make any major political, or policy level difference,” he added.

Basit further said that Pakistan was not a priority for the US, and the relationship between the two nations is mostly framed in relation to Pakistan’s regional neighbours, India, China and Afghanistan.

“The Americans want Pakistan to maintain peace on the eastern front with India, while influencing the Afghan Taliban since the US withdrawal (in 2021),” he said, adding that the Pakistan-US relationship “is less about the countries itself”.

Lodhi, the former ambassador also agreed, and said that the relationship between them is currently at an “inflection point”.

“Ever since the US military withdrawal from the Afghanistan, relations have been in this rather tentative state. The US withdrawal, in fact, has completely changed the context of this relationship where for the last two decades, Afghanistan was the only common issue between them,” she added.

Bokhari also adds that from the State Department’s perspective, the US would like to avoid taking sides amid Pakistan’s multiple crises at a time when American diplomacy and the Biden administration are also swamped with several challenges.

“Pakistan is not on the priority list right now. The Americans have their hands full with the Middle East crisis, the Ukraine war, China, and then this is election season. They have no shortage of issues,” he said.

Lodhi says that until the US elections, scheduled for November this year, it is unlikely anything of significance will take place between the two countries.

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