FILE - A salesman in Karachi, Pakistan, eats breakfast as he watches Donald Trump's November 9, 2016 victory speech.
FILE - A salesman in Karachi, Pakistan, eats breakfast as he watches Donald Trump's November 9, 2016 victory speech.

ISLAMABAD - While misgivings and distrust marred and further complicated Pakistan’s relations with the United States over the past eight years, officials in Islamabad appear upbeat about a more “substantive” and mutually "advantageous" engagement with the incoming administration of Donald Trump.

President Barack Obama’s administration provided billions of dollars in economic and military assistance to Pakistan for its cooperation in securing volatile tribal regions on the Afghan border.

But persistent allegations that anti-Afghanistan and anti-India militant groups continue to operate out of Pakistan, with not enough action taken against them, have strained Islamabad’s relations with Washington.

Pakistan’s allegedly fast-growing nuclear weapons capability has also deepened frictions and hampered progress in moving forward bilateral ties.

For their part, Pakistani officials complained that the Obama administration’s "ambiguous" Afghan policy and "undue favors" to boost India’s defense and nuclear capabilities ignored Islamabad’s concerns the actions would disturb the strategic imbalance in South Asia.

However, Pakistan now feels the opportunity for bilateral cooperation to achieve shared objectives "is much better today than it was in the past eight years," said Sartaj Aziz, chief foreign policy adviser to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra
FILE - President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi talk in the Cabinet Room of the White House, June 7, 2016.

First steps

Aziz’s optimism stems from "a very pleasant and useful" phone conversation Sharif had with the U.S. president-elect in late November, followed by Islamabad’s direct contacts with the Trump team.

"So, we look forward to a very constructive and positive engagement with the new [U.S.] administration as we go along," he told VOA on the eve of Trump’s inauguration.

Trump’s Defense Secretary nominee James Mattis, at his confirmation hearing earlier this month, vowed to "incentivize" Pakistan’s cooperation on issues critical to America’s national interests, though he too reiterated the need for Islamabad to expel or neutralize "eternally-focused" militant groups. Mattis, however, noted Pakistan's progress in the fight against terrorism.

But Aziz welcomed the praise of Mattis, asserting that Pakistani forces have uprooted the bases of all militant groups on their soil and removed a major irritant in bilateral relations, laying the foundation for a "constructive" cooperation with the Trump presidency.

"Our success in counterterrorism in the last three years is a very good starting point for these relations because that was one of the bone of contentions how far and fast we can move. So, now, I think that is done. We are going to deal with all terrorist groups as we go along. So it is basically work in progress. It is not something that they [U.S.] are asking us to do and it is not in our priorities. We are I think decisively moving in that direction," he said.

He added that his government hopes the Trump administration, unlike its predecessor, will take steps to ease Pakistan’s persistent tensions with India and encourage New Delhi to resolve differences with Islamabad through dialogue.  Aziz reiterated Pakistan’s concerns over deepening U.S. military and nuclear cooperation with India.

"The strategic stability in South Asia is very important and we have been emphasizing to US that if you start your defense cooperation and arms agreement in such a way that disturbs our strategic stability then we will have no option but to respond and that is not good for the peace in the region or world," he said.

Frequent exchanges of fire across the dispute Kashmir border in recent months have raised military tensions and led to an apparently unending war of words between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan who have already fought four wars.

FILE - Indian Border Security Force soldiers walk
FILE - Indian Border Security Force soldiers walk near the India-Pakistan international border area at Gakhrial boder post in Akhnoor sector, about 48 kilometers (30 miles) from Jammu, India, Oct. 1, 2016.

Challenges remain

Despite Pakistan’s optimism about establishing a good working relationship with the incoming U.S. administration, critics are skeptical and unclear about how Trump will approach the complexity of the issues facing bilateral relations because he has not talked about the policy during his election campaign.

During recent public talks at U.S. Institute of Peace, or USIP, in Washington, former U.S. and Pakistani officials anticipated an increasingly tense partnership between the Trump presidency and Islamabad, though they cautioned against any "deep rupture."

Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robin Raphel noted that it was important for the Trump admiration "to stay engaged” with Pakistan.

"Most likely scenario, I think, is that the new administration will have a re-look and will tighten up, harden up on the issues," such as the Afghan Taliban’s use of Pakistan as a safe haven, said Raphel.

She added that Pakistan will probably, at least in the short term, "pull up its socks, as we say, and ... accelerate plans that it might have to deal with some of these groups."

Former State Department advisor Lisa Curtis observed that Pakistan's crackdown on the Afghan Taliban and the terrorist Haqqani network fighting U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan is key to achieving Washington's counterterrorism objectives.

"But it is certainly not in the U.S. interest to make an enemy out of Pakistan," she added.

Ex-governor of the State Bank of Pakistan, Ishrat Hussain, warned the dialogue between the two countries "will continue and we all muddle through" if Afghanistan, terrorism and nuclear issues remain the U.S focus.

"If this [Trump] administration de-hyphenates Pakistan from Afghanistan that will become a more enduring and positive relationship for Pakistan and the United States," said Husain, currently a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

At a subsequent debate at the USIP, analysts emphasized the need for the incoming administration to develop clearer policies to ease strains between India and Pakistan amid fears of another direct military conflict in the region. However, they agreed the India-Pakistan conflict has never been a priority in U.S. foreign policy and it is unlikely to become one for the Trump administration.