Ties in focus as Pakistan army chief meets US officials

Analysts say General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who is in the US for a week-long visit, is there to ensure ties remain functional.

General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Pakistani army's chief of staff, has travelled to Washington for a visit just before his retirement [File: Faisal Mahmood/Reuters]

Weeks before his scheduled retirement, Pakistan’s military chief has travelled to the United States for a series of high-level discussions.

General Qamar Javed Bajwa held meetings on Tuesday with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, during which they discussed the regional security situation, according to the Pakistani military.

For its part, the Pentagon said the talks were “focused on opportunities to address key mutual defence interests”.

Nasim Zehra, an Islamabad-based analyst, said this was Bajwa’s “farewell trip” to the US ahead of his November retirement. The general was originally slated to retire three years ago, but the government of former Prime Minister Imran Khan granted him an extension.

“We are seeing greater interaction between the political and military leadership of both countries,” Zehra told Al Jazeera. “I wouldn’t rule out this trip involving discussions of greater military cooperation.”

During the previous decade, Pakistan steadily moved towards its main regional ally China for its economic and defence needs, which resulted in the gradual cooling-off in its relationship with the US.

After the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August last year, the relationship fractured even more. The Pakistani side felt that the US had left neighbouring Afghanistan without an exit strategy whereas the US expressed frustration that Pakistan did not play a role in controlling the Taliban.

The situation further deteriorated when Khan engaged in aggressive anti-US rhetoric and blamed what he called a Washington-led foreign conspiracy for overthrowing his government in April without providing proof of his allegations.

However, the government of current Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif has renewed attempts to mend ties since taking office. That process picked up pace over the past several months after catastrophic floods swept through much of Pakistan, killing about 1,700 people and affecting 33 million.

In July, Donald Blome assumed his role as US ambassador to Pakistan, filling a slot that had been vacant for four years. Since then, senior US officials and members of Congress have visited the country in the aftermath of the floods. So far, the US has provided $66m in aid.

And last month, both Sharif and Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari met US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during their visit to the US. The top US diplomat last week defended a recently approved $450m F-16 deal after criticism from Pakistan’s archrival, India. Blinken said it would help Pakistan maintain its existing fleet of the fighter jets.

‘Limited scope relationship’

Some analysts believe the purpose of Bajwa’s visit is to ensure that going forward, the ties between the two countries remain at least cordial and functional.

“It is perhaps a kind of assurance to the Americans by the army chief that whatever we agree, Pakistan will continue with [that] policy,” Lahore-based political analyst Hassan Askari Rizvi told Al Jazeera. “It is not about an individual, but an institution, which is on board with the policy of improving Pakistani-US relations.”

Rizvi said the US will have “a limited scope relationship” with Pakistan, adding that “both positives and negatives of this policy will continue simultaneously”.

Abdul Basit, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, concurred. He also noted that the change in the relationship calculus was more to keep an eye on Afghanistan and keep pressure on the Taliban government.

“In return, the US is providing some aid to Pakistan to mitigate the damage and destruction unleashed by monsoon floods as well as use its influence on the International Monetary Fund for the bailout package and help the country come off the FATF list,” Basit told Al Jazeera, referring to the Financial Action Task Force, an intergovernmental body that keeps Pakistan on a watchlist of countries that do not meet the organisation’s criteria to restrict the funding of terrorist groups.

While rebuilding its relationship with Washington, Pakistan will also have to maintain a balancing act with China, which is at loggerheads with the US over a number of issues. Last month, Bajwa paid a two-day visit to Beijing, where he met Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe.

This, Rizvi believes, means the path towards a functional relationship will remain bumpy.

“The US has reservations regarding the Chinese role in Pakistan, and they want to use India as a counterbalance against China,” he said. ‘This upsets Pakistan, so, therefore, it is not going to be a smooth relationship.”

Basit, on the other hand, feels that opening to Pakistan was perhaps a signal to both India and China.

“Improving ties with Pakistan is meant to counterbalance China as well as give a signal to India for snubbing the US and the West over the Ukraine conflict and continuing oil imports from Russia,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera