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by Ted Craig

Pakistan is no longer an imperative for the United States. With the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and the fall of the Afghan government in August 2021, our critical need for Pakistan as the only reliable land and air route into that landlocked country has all but ended. The US embassy in Islamabad is working admirably with Pakistan authorities to ensure that Pakistan remains a viable exit route for the Afghan allies for whom we seek to provide refuge, but the daily necessity of Pakistan to supply our troops, diplomats, and development officers is over.

Conversely, we are no longer compelled to engage Pakistan in the vain hope it will eliminate the sanctuary it long provided the Taliban. It never did, and the Afghan Taliban’s victory owes as much to the safe haven that Pakistan gave it as it does to the corrupted Afghan state that our overabundance of dollars helped create.

After the United States’ humiliating exit from Kabul, there is an understandable impulse in Washington to wash our hands of the uncomfortable and often morally compromised relationship with Pakistan. We no longer need much from Islamabad (or Rawalpindi, the Army’s headquarters), and we have a seemingly more important relationship to build with Pakistan’s archrival India. But turning our backs on Pakistan is the wrong play.

To date, the Biden administration has authorized some valuable diplomatic reengagement with Pakistan, cleared a sustainment package for previous Pakistan military purchases, and sent generous assistance in response to 2022 flooding. But the White House has not offered high-level engagement. In Washington corridors, there is a clear sense that the White House is Pakistan-skeptical.

What We Owe Pakistan

Before identifying US interests in re-engagement, it is worth considering two arguments that we have a moral imperative to do so. One argument stipulates an American debt to Pakistan for the regional chaos sown by the American intervention in Afghanistan and then its withdrawal. The other argument is that we owe more active support to the various internal victims of the Pakistan military establishment, a deep state that our long Cold War engagement and funding helped to create.

Today Pakistan is suffering a resurgence of terrorist attacks from the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the “Pakistan Taliban,” ethnic Pashtun cousins to the Afghan Taliban who find refuge in the new Afghanistan. Pakistan argues that the United States is partly culpable for the lethality of the renascent TTP, which is said to be using weapons and equipment, including night-vision goggles, that the United States provided the Afghan military. From a longer perspective, America is held responsible because it pressured Pakistan to cooperate in rooting out al-Qaida militants in the Pashtun heartland after 9/11, operations that provoked the formation of the TTP.
The collapse of the Afghan military in 2021 left Afghanistan with plenty of loose rifles ultimately sourced by the United States. That said, the reason the TTP can attack and commit mayhem in Pakistan is that its fighters can retreat across the border to Afghanistan to rest and refit. Pakistan’s one-time houseguest, the Afghan Taliban, is the most responsible party for Pakistan’s renewed suffering at the hands of the TTP — and Pakistan’s deep state is significantly responsible for the survival and success of the Taliban.
No US official would confess to it in writing, but a sentiment of schadenfreude was ubiquitous in the early months after the US withdrawal and the uptick in TTP attacks. Pakistan was getting its just desserts at the hands of the TTP.

However understandable, this is an ill-considered response on our part, and it has faded. None of the soldiers or local police being killed by the TTP had a thing to do with the Pakistan deep state’s orchestration of support to the Afghan Taliban. The wrong men and women are getting the payback, including civilians. From the perspectives of both interests and morality, we should hope for Pakistan’s success against the TTP, and US official policy has moved with alacrity toward providing renewed counterterrorism (CT) support to Pakistan.

The CT support springs convincingly from our own security interests. The TTP’s terrorism feeds into the ecosystem of Islamist militancy. The group is cozy with the remnants of al-Qaida in Afghanistan, and whole parts of the TTP could again slide into alliance with the large and potent branch of ISIS still underfoot in Afghanistan. Our support is important to ensure the TTP does not grow into an even larger regional menace.

Beyond helping Pakistan confront counterterrorism, does America have an obligation to support Pakistan’s civil society, its embattled democrats, or its oppressed ethnic or religious minorities? Going into national elections in February 2024, the Pakistan deep state moved to quash one of the country’s most popular political parties, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) of former prime minister Imran Khan.

As a diplomat in Pakistan five years ago, I worked within the US foreign policy community as we faced a similar set of circumstances. Then it was the PTI that benefitted from the army’s favor. Although undoubtedly popular, Khan and his party received a significant boost from a playbook of deep-state shenanigans that hamstrung the other parties, got out the vote for the PTI, and helped pave the way for the PTI’s ruling coalition. We knew then it was a less than fully democratic outcome.

Pakistani women queueing to vote on February 8, 2024, in Peshawar

In 2018, the United States chose to engage Khan’s new government rather than challenge its legitimacy, and Pakistan began helping US outreach to the Taliban soon thereafter. In 2024 we have less at stake in the region. In this February’s elections, moreover, Pakistan’s army proved far less able to manipulate Pakistan’s voters. Although it did not win a majority, affiliates of Khan’s PTI took a plurality of seats despite the suppression of its candidates and leader. And those were the official results, which have been questioned by observers (and certainly the PTI). It appears that the deep state’s manipulation largely backfired in 2024, making a martyr of Khan and possibly juicing support for his party.

Despite the PTI’s apparent success, however, it was clear soon after the election that Pakistan’s legacy parties would be able to cobble together a ruling coalition. It will not be a recipe for stability, but it is not apparent the United States should apply significant pressure to frustrate that outcome. We should work for democratic processes and fairness, but we cannot significantly influence government formation in Pakistan today.

Pakistani women voting during the country’s parliamentary elections in Rawalpindi on Thursday Feb. 8, 2024.

This is not an argument for the amoral diplomacy of our rivals in the region. We should be engaged in Pakistan to promote religious freedom and tolerance, to cooperate against trafficking in persons and narcotics, and to promote women’s, LGBTQ, and labor rights, to name just a few imperatives. We should uphold US laws that require punitive sanctions for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights. But we should not mislead our civil society partners in Pakistan by suggesting we are ready to defy the Pakistan military and its international backers by forcing regime change. That is beyond our reach and pursuing it would certainly do more harm than good.

The Margins of Geopolitical Interest

In the event, a sustainable engagement with Pakistan will be based on US interests, and almost inevitably today some of those will center on the competition with China. Through the entirety of the Cold War and even into the 21st century, Pakistan adeptly maintained robust relations with both Washington and Beijing. By 2024, Pakistan is more securely in the orbit of the People’s Republic of China.

US limitations on military sales and assistance to Pakistan played a significant part in Pakistan’s drift toward Beijing. Some of the sanctions came about over Pakistan’s covert and then open development of a robust nuclear arsenal. We were also leery because of the Pakistan military’s intimate relationship with Islamist militants. These included but were not limited to the Taliban and the anti-India groups Pakistan long supported, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, perpetrators of the 2008 attacks in Mumbai.

As we toggled between Afghanistan-focused cooperation and exasperated scolding of the Pakistan state, Beijing moved into the breach and has become Pakistan’s most essential partner, the provider of most of its military hardware as well as the amped up capital investments of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the marquee project of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Despite some real limitations and frustrations in the Pakistan-China relationship, Beijing’s predominance among Pakistan’s external supporters is not going to change soon. Washington, meanwhile, has found reason to invest vigorously in India as a regional counterweight to China. At first blush, then, there is little geopolitical persuasiveness for US-Pakistan ties.

In fact, a stronger relationship with Pakistan fits neatly into our overarching effort to bolster India and compete with China. First, Pakistan has made it apparent that it does not want to be wholly dependent on China for security and investment. We cannot offset China in Pakistan, but our presence there gives Pakistan the flexibility to maintain foreign policy independence. It may support China on almost every vote at the United Nations, but it can be helpful to the West on important issues.

Second, our maintenance of healthy ties with Pakistan benefits India. Rather than excusing Pakistan’s use of militancy against India, as India sometimes argues, our engagement with Pakistan serves as leverage for restraint (I have heard both perspectives from Indian diplomats). After the flare in tensions between India and Pakistan following a February 14, 2019, terrorist attack in Indian Kashmir, consistent diplomatic pressure from the United States and others helped produce a substantial reduction in Pakistani support for militant infiltration and attacks. Our access to Rawalpindi can also be vital in times of crisis between Pakistan and India, a diplomatic starting point to defuse tensions between the two nuclear-armed rivals.

Finally, the Israel-Gaza conflict has underscored the importance of our cooperative approach to Pakistan, the world’s only nuclear armed Muslim-majority country. Pakistanis are fulsomely sympathetic to the Palestinian people. The Pakistan government, however, has shown diplomatic restraint, arguing for a ceasefire and civilian relief. It is important to our national interests that Pakistan continue to play a constructive role in the hot-button issues of the Middle East.

What We Should Do

What then are the initiatives to potentially strengthen the beneficial relations we seek with Pakistan? First, I believe we should be open to sales of more advanced military technology to Pakistan, within the bounds of our technology controls. As we help India improve its capabilities vis-à-vis China, it is important that we not create too great a conventional imbalance between India and Pakistan. It is valuable to regional stability if Pakistan can defend itself conventionally in a crisis without having to consider crossing the nuclear threshold.

Second, we should work closely with Pakistan (and the broader international community) for a US diplomatic return to Kabul, sooner rather than later. We should continue to demand concessions from the Taliban for that return, most probably modest gains on the rights of women and girls. We will not win big changes for our diplomatic recognition, but by returning to Kabul we can play a stronger role in engaging with factions of the Taliban to gain marginal concessions, better identify humanitarian needs, and show support for the beleaguered populace.

Finally, I would propose a renewal of robust development assistance to Pakistan, focused intently on creating and supporting a sustainable export-led growth strategy. China has provided a great deal of infrastructure to Pakistan (roads and power, most notably), and in the process bequeathed Pakistan a debilitating debt overhang and no clear strategy for how to exploit that infrastructure. We have an interest in helping Pakistan clear away regulatory and corruption-fueled obstacles to a smart, export-led economic growth path, even if nothing about that will come easily.

Pakistan is a large, troubled, geographically vital state. For geopolitical reasons rather than sentiment we should continue to engage its compromised governments and its resourceful people. We have more to gain than lose from such a strategy, whatever our real and lingering hard feelings from the post-9/11 decades.End.


1 Madiha Afzal, “The Biden administration’s two-track Pakistan policy misses the mark,” Brookings Commentary, March 2, 2023.
2 See for example Mehlaqa Samdani “The Death of Democracy in Pakistan,” Foreign Policy in Focus, June 20, 2023.
3 Ayaz Gul, “US Dismisses as ‘Farce’ Claims of Abandoning Arms in Afghanistan,” Voice of America, Dec. 20, 2023.
4 According to South Asian Terrorism Portal statistics, Pakistan suffered 386 civilian and 532 security force deaths from terrorism in 2023, capping year-on-year increases from 2020, when the numbers were 169 civilian and 178 security force deaths.
5 Madiha Afzal, “Ahead of elections, Pakistan’s democracy stands badly damaged,” Brookings, December 8, 2023.

Ahead of elections, Pakistan’s democracy stands badly damaged

6 For longer treatments of interest-based engagement with Pakistan, see Syed Mohammad Ali, “Managing US Relations with Pakistan in Uncertain Times: Opportunities and Obstacles,” Middle East Institute, December 7, 2023.; Adam Weinstein, “Normalizing US-Pakistan Relations,” Quincy Brief No. 44, August 31, 2023,
7 Umair Jamal, “What’s Cooking Between Ukraine and Pakistan,” The Diplomat, July 26, 2023.; Sarah Zaman, “Pakistan PM Denies Arms Sales to Ukraine,” VOA, November 17, 2023.
8 Umair Jamal, “Pakistan Takes a Cautious Approach to the Israel-Gaza Conflict,” The Diplomat, October 26, 2023.


Ted Craig, a retired US diplomat, is the author of Pakistan and American Diplomacy: Insights from 9/11 to the Afghanistan Endgame (Potomac Books/University of Nebraska Press, April 2024), a volume in the ADST/DACOR “Diplomats and Diplomacy” series. He served twice in Pakistan, the final time as political counselor from 2018-2019. A graduate of The Colorado College (BA) and the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS, MA), Ted joined the Foreign Service in 1991, serving in a variety of Latin American and African posts. In Washington, he served on the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff and in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, among other positions. He is currently a field advisor for the Department of State’s Counterterrorism Bureau, working in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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