Why Pakistan is still important to the US

Strained relations between the United States and Pakistan will be on the agenda during defence secretary Chuck Hagel's visit to Islamabad.

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When Chuck Hagel, the United States secretary of defence, landed in Pakistan yesterday, it was to a welcome, and a relationship, strained by America's ongoing drone strikes in the country's tribal belts. US-Pakistani relations have been tense since the raid on Pakistan territory that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. But even before that, Washington's relations with Islamabad had become progressively more problematic. That is a mistake. Despite disagreements, there are sound reasons for the US to maintain good relations with Pakistan.

Mr Hagel’s presence – the first visit by a US defence secretary in nearly four years – was a tacit acceptance that relations with Islamabad had room for improvement. He noted soon after his arrival that Pakistan had “provided tremendous support ... in the war on terror”.

However, there is no question that Pakistan’s significance to the US goes beyond terrorism. Pakistan is one of the biggest recipients of economic aid from China – often seemingly targeted to annoy or provoke India and Iran. Islamabad’s relations with Beijing reached a milestone earlier this year when it handed over management of the Gwadar port to China. The port has geostrategic and political significance for US policy and interests in the region: it will link China to the Arabian Sea and to the Strait of Hormuz, the gateway for one-third of the world’s traded oil. If used as a Chinese naval base, the port will have new implications, not only for the US but also for India. China is also reportedly investing in Pakistan’s nuclear energy projects, which raises the risk of proliferation. So, the US should have serious concerns over such cooperation.

If these were the only pieces of the geopolitical puzzle in the region, it would be fair to expect a competitive two-bloc formation to take shape in South Asia: China and Pakistan on one side, and India and the US on the other. But the puzzle is more complicated than that. Thanks to its location, Pakistan will inevitably play a central role in the future of Afghanistan, and ultimately the stability and economic interdependence of much of Central Asia. That is why Afghanistan’s stability is unthinkable without Pakistan’s cooperation.

That is also why the US should demonstrate a more nuanced approach to its relations with Pakistan. It must understand that it cannot launch drone strikes at will or sign deals that appear to disadvantage Pakistan or favour India without there being some consequence to tripartite dynamics.