With the anti-American Imran Khan out of office and military leaders voicing their criticism of the once-favoured Vladimir Putin, Rai Mansoor Imtiaz Khan ponders what US-Pakistan relations will look like under new Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.

Pakistan's relations with Washington under the Biden administration have been strained to say the least. The ties between the two countries reached a new low when former PM Imran Khan, ousted through a parliamentary no confidence vote, accused the US of plotting his downfall and backing the no confidence vote. Khan proclaimed that Pakistan under his government had moved closer to Russia, which was seen to irk Washington.

Washington has bluntly denied Khan's allegation, and Major General Babar Iftikhar, Director General of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), confirmed that the word "conspiracy" was not used in the findings issued after a meeting of the National Security Committee (NSC) to discuss the controversial diplomatic cable. However, Khan's oft-repeated allegations of the US intervention and his anti-American narrative are being welcomed by the Pakistani urban middle class.

After the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan no longer occupies much of Washington's attention. Despite efforts from top Pakistani officials, Joe Biden did not call Imran Khan, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan. American officials have held Pakistan responsible for not doing enough to deal with terrorism, believing that Pakistan has sheltered armed groups, including the Taliban. This has angered Pakistan, particularly under Khan's regime, feeling that the US has not recognised the high price the country has paid after backing the US war on terror.

Khan was in Moscow when Russian troops invaded Ukraine. The timing of Khan's visit, along with his denunciation of the EU Ambassador for writing a letter to his government and asking for Pakistan's vote against the Russian invasion, demonstrates the positive relations between Khan and Putin. Putin, in fact, had called Khan three times since August 2021.

For much of the last four decades, US policy towards Pakistan has revolved around fighting wars in Afghanistan. Because of its interest in Afghanistan, Washington remained close to the military generals rather than the civil leadership of the country, which disrupted the civil-military balance in Pakistan. Pakistan is a deep state where the military controls the country's foreign policy, alongside many other issues. Though the civilian leadership of the country visits and invites foreign representatives, things get done when "the institution" (the military) as a de facto ruler signals.

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Khan's anti-American foreign policy was not acceptable to the guardians of the state (the military). After Khan's continuous criticism of Washington's political role and the posturing of Pakistan as a neutral actor in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the chief of the armed forces, General Qamar Bajwa, openly criticised Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The chief's statement against Russia and his publicly demonstration of wanting to improve ties with Washington made very clear the direction the military wanted to look towards.

Alongside the country's economic revival, the principal priority for newly elected PM Shehbaz Sharif is to fix ties with the US. Pakistan's government under Sharif clearly said that it would "constructively and positively" engage with Washington to stimulate "shared goals" of regional development, security and peace. Pakistan's economy depends on the IMF and World Bank funding.

We have also seen some positive gestures from the US officials on Sharif's appointment as the country's new PM. The US State Department congratulated Shehbaz Sharif on his appointment and called Bilawal Bhutto Zardari to congratulate him on being appointed Sharif's new foreign minister. Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, signalled that Washington values the bilateral relationship and looks forward to working with Islamabad. Jen Psaki, the White House Press Secretary, has also stated that Washington values its long-standing cooperation with Islamabad. She pointed out that Biden's administration believes in "upholding constitutional democratic principles" rather than supporting one political party over another.

Sharif has run the country's largest province – Punjab – and has proved himself a capable administrator to accompany his good reputation internationally. He knows that Pakistan needs the US in its economic revival, and his government must work to eliminate the mistrust between the two countries.

Sharif seems capable of reinvigorating business in Pakistan and negotiating another loan with the IMF. However, his country's economy is severely weakened by a current account deficit and the high inflation. Tough decisions will need to be made to get Pakistan's economy growing again, likely having to increase taxation to accrue revenue without cutting subsidies and going against welfare policies.

Contrary to his brother – former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif – Shehbaz Sharif has good links with "the institution", and Washington can now directly engage with the civil leadership of Pakistan and work for the broader regional interest and stability in South Asia. Danger man Khan is gone, and the hope now is that more positive US-Pakistani relations can resume, starting with a phone call between the two leaders.

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