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U.S.-Pakistan relations are at a crossroads

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

U.S.-Pakistan relations are at a crossroads. For the past two decades, the relationship has centered around the war in Afghanistan. Now the U.S. war is over. American troops are gone. So what changes now between the U.S. and Pakistan?

Here's NPR's John Ruwitch.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Relations between the two countries have always been fraught.

JAMES SCHWEMLEIN: As our focus has changed, the relationship with Pakistan has become more important or less important. And it's been subject to this kind of bubble-crash cycles.

RUWITCH: Bubble-crash cycles - that's James Schwemlein. He's a former U.S. diplomat and Pakistan specialist who now works at the Albright Stonebridge Group. There are bubbles - good relations - when the strategic interests overlap, like when the Soviet Union invaded neighboring Afghanistan in 1979 and the U.S. needed Pakistan's help to arm Afghan rebels. Crashes come when interests diverge, like when the Soviets left a decade later. Another bubble emerged after 9/11 and the U.S. needed Pakistan's help again.

SCHWEMLEIN: It kind of really grew in the early years of Obama and then crashed after 2011.

RUWITCH: That year, Navy SEALs conducted a raid inside Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden but enraged the Pakistani government. A few months later, U.S. forces killed more than two dozen Pakistani soldiers near the border with Afghanistan. Since then, things have again bumped along.

SCHWEMLEIN: I would argue that we're trying to find the next kind of - what's the next inflection point?

MALEEHA LODHI: It has obviously moved to a new phase.

RUWITCH: Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani diplomat who was ambassador to the U.S. and to the United Nations.

LODHI: It's an undefined phase. There's a lot of uncertainty about what this relationship can look like in the future.

RUWITCH: This week, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is in Pakistan to try to figure that out. Analysts say the biggest area where U.S. interests overlap with Pakistan's is counterterrorism. That's especially the case now that U.S. troops are out of Afghanistan and the Taliban have seized control - a Taliban which over the years have enjoyed support from Pakistan. In the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, several U.S. senators introduced legislation that could lead to fresh sanctions on Pakistan for that.

But people here are hoping for something different, says Lodhi, the former ambassador.

LODHI: So I think the challenge now is to see whether a relationship can be predicated on Pakistan's intrinsic importance.

RUWITCH: That echoes what the government here has been saying. It wants to recast its relationship with the U.S. and others through the lens of what it calls geoeconomics, moving the focus away from security and geopolitics to development, investment and trade.

Adam Weinstein is a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

ADAM WEINSTEIN: It wants the world to view it as a so-called normal country, not just Afghanistan's neighbor, not just a hotbed of the counterterrorism fight.

RUWITCH: One country that already does so is China. Beijing does have its own strategic interests in cultivating a strong relationship with Pakistan, but it's also been a consistent friend over the decades. And it has invested tens of billions of dollars, most recently through the Belt and Road initiative. With the Afghanistan exit, the Biden administration's policy focus is squarely on competition with China, which includes trying to diminish China's growing clout around the world.

But Weinstein says that'll be hard to do in Pakistan.

WEINSTEIN: The reality is that unless the United States can offer Pakistan the same things that China offers Pakistan, the relationship between China and Pakistan is going to continue to be closer.

RUWITCH: To some of the U.S., conditions on the ground and economic opportunities just aren't there yet for Pakistan's dream of geoeconomic engagement to come true.

Mushahid Hussain Syed is chairman of the Pakistani Senate's defense committee. He sees things differently.

MUSHAHID HUSSAIN SYED: So the ball is in the American court. How do they see the region? Is it going to be a new Cold War, with India as their ally and China as their adversary? Or is it going to be a glimmer of hope that Afghanistan settle downs and most of Asia settle downs (ph) and there can be connectivity and cooperation?

RUWITCH: It's America's choice. But he has a word of advice - just don't repeat old mistakes. Asia of the 21st century, he says, can't afford a new Cold War.

John Ruwitch, NPR News, Islamabad.

(SOUNDBITE OF BERRY WEIGHT'S "SOLEIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.