In the midst of uncertainty and unprecedented security, the 46th president of the United States, Joe Biden, took oath last Thursday. This was for the first time in 150 years that an outgoing president was conspicuous by his absence as well as large crowds that were part and parcel of such oath-taking ceremonies. Instead, over 25,000 national security guards laid a siege to Washington that looked more of a garrison town than the capital of the global superpower.
For Pakistan, the key issue is what changes Biden’s presidency would bring for the country and the region and whether Biden would stick to Trump’s Afghan peace efforts. The new Secretary of State and the National Security Adviser have hinted at a review of the deal with the Taliban but clarified that the Biden administration too would want to ensure a safe exit of US troops from Afghanistan. Whether that will happen this summer as part of the February 29 deal remains to be seen. The fear is that if the US withdraws from Afghanistan without a long-term political deal through the intra-Afghan dialogue, a civil war is inevitable. That is why it is crucial to find out if Biden would link troops’ withdrawal with the final peace accord between the Afghan Taliban and the government.
One thing is certain — Pakistan would remain a major player in any Afghan deal. This has been confirmed by the US defense secretary-designate when he termed Pakistan an ‘essential partner’ for any solution to the Afghan war. But Pakistan wants the US to see its importance beyond Afghanistan and security prism. Speaking to a US think-tank, PM’s Special Assistant on National Security Dr Moeed Yousaf said Pakistan had a lot more to offer than Afghanistan to the US. In this context the sense within the policymakers here is that Pakistan must strive to revive the institutional mechanism with the new US administration. Before Trump, Pakistan and the US had high-level strategic dialogue as part of the Kerry-Lugar Bill that sought to triple non-military aid to Pakistan in hopes that the country would indiscriminately go after militant groups. In return the then Obama administration was willing to expand cooperation with Pakistan beyond Afghanistan and security matters. For example, under the strategic framework, there were five working groups covering not just security but trade, health, education and regional issues. There was a high-level ministerial forum that met regularly both in Washington and Islamabad from 2009 to 2016. The last ministerial meeting attended by foreign, defense, finance ministers and military leadership from both sides was held in Washington. Both sides agreed to hold the next session in Islamabad in 2017 but that day never arrived since president Trump discarded the arrangement.
Unlike the previous administration, the White House established direct contact with Pakistan thanks to Senator Lindsey Graham, a close aide of Trump, and partly due to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. It was because of this that president Trump met PM Imran Khan thrice in a short span. There had been a visible change in Washington’s tone towards Pakistan as the country helped the US advance peace efforts in Afghanistan. The downside of this arrangement, however, was that there was no institutional framework between both countries for high-level engagements. The US did not appoint a full-time ambassador to Pakistan while official engagement was reduced to the level of assistant secretary of state. It, however, remains to be seen if the Biden administration would revive strategic dialogue with Pakistan. But one thing is clear: that Biden, a foreign policy veteran, knows Pakistan and the region well — something that can work both to our advantage and disadvantage!
Published in The Express Tribune, January 25th, 2021.