Marvin Weinbaum, a former analyst on Afghanistan and Pakistan for the U.S. State Department, has spent decades observing the complex relations between Washington and Islamabad. In the wake of Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s visit to Washington this week, Weinbaum, now a specialist at Washington’s Middle East Institute think tank, weighed in on the current state of relations between the erstwhile allies now trying to convince each other of their interests, which often clash over Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: How do you look at the current state of relations between Pakistan and the United States?
Marvin Weinbaum: I will describe them as on hold. I don’t see any movement in relations at all. What has been the essential character of the relations ever since the new administration here came to power has pretty much been continuity from [the] past. What has been different here [is] that at least some of the rhetoric, at least early on, was particularly harsh when it came to Pakistan.
But things have cooled, and all the focus has come off Pakistan as such, except for one factor -- and this is a continuation, also -- Pakistan’s conceivable role in helping to deliver the Taliban to the negotiating table. That seems to be the focus of attention.
RFE/RL: Do you see any progress precisely on that front?
Weinbaum: No, we don’t. Particularly because the accustomed way of following up on a meeting is to have a joint statement. None was prepared -- at least, none was delivered [this week after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Pakistani counterpart Qureshi]. And that may be significant here in that they had nothing new to say or that there were some basic areas in which they still do not share the same view. It was better, therefore, to let is pass without trying to design some statement, which will cover that.
Those meetings that he [Qureshi] had are more courtesy meetings than anything else. He is very amiable, and I am sure his main objective was to get to know some of the characters here. He has been a foreign minister, of course, in the past. So, he does have a familiarity here in Washington, where he is well-liked.
The United States believes Pakistan still plays a highly influential role over the Taliban and that, of course, includes [the Taliban’s deadly military wing] the Haqqani network. Pakistan responds, ‘We have some influence, but the idea that somehow we can deliver anything overstates the way in which we have a relationship with those insurgent organizations. So, in effect, you cannot expect us to deliver a miracle for you.’”
RFE/RL: For the past 17-18 years, we have been discussing anti-terror cooperation between the two, but why is the Taliban leadership still in Pakistan? What is the bare minimum Washington would like Islamabad to do?
Weinbaum: It wants cooperation from Pakistan. Now, Pakistan is certainly not denying it has a relationship with the insurgent leadership. It explains that by saying, ‘If you want us to influence them, we have to have a relationship with them. And if they are not in Pakistan, we have no leverage over them.’ This is the kind of bind that things are in.
It has been the policy of the United States to see them thrown out of Pakistan. The truth is that if Pakistan is going to be able to pressure them, it’s got to have some leverage. It loses that leverage if they, for example, relocate to Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: Do you think the United States now has some leverage over Pakistan because of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout that Islamabad might be seeking? Could this encourage Pakistan to go down the path of cooperation given that its economy needs some quick support?
Weinbaum: That would certainly be a lever that they [Washington] would have. The other side of it is that if Pakistan does not get assistance from the IMF, Islamabad is going to find itself in a very fragile condition economically. The situation is rather dire now, and it will get worse even next year given the interest payments they have to come up with.
It has gotten some relief from the Saudis. It may come in the form of concessions on the oil delivery. It may get some money from the Chinese, but that is not nearly enough. It is going to need the IMF. The United States will not be well-served if this new government fails miserably [or] if there is any kind of instability in Pakistan.
Let’s face it: The only way Pakistan can be helpful to the United States is curbing the extremist groups in the country -- the jihadi groups -- that has also been the targets of American concerns. They cannot do this if Pakistan is weak. It can only do this if it feels secure. Do we really want to see a Pakistan in difficulty? A Pakistan in which this government early on looks like it is in real trouble [will] only in the end benefit the extremist groups.
In talking about what Pakistan is doing for the United States, Qureshi brought up the GLOCs (Ground Lines of Communication) and ALOCs (Air Lines of Communication). That, I think, was meant very deliberately, to say, ‘This is something that you really care about and we have been very helpful in that regard and don’t forget that.’”