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Factors that’ll shape Pak-US ties under Biden

SUNDAY SPECIAL-ENG-14-11-2020 (1)

The ascendance of Joe Biden to the Presidency of the US is being seen as a watershed, expected to produce some significant changes in US foreign policy over a wide range of issues covering Afghanistan, Iran, China and Europe.

While Biden and Trump do have deep differences over many questions of foreign policy, Pakistan-US ties even under the new administration would be overshadowed by events in Afghanistan if the US sees Pakistan playing on its side.

Despite his differences with Trump, Joe Biden is expected to continue to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, although he may stop short of a quick, hasty and irresponsible drawdown. Instead, he will be more inclined to taking a cautious approach, leaving a residual force behind. In other words, while the pattern of withdrawal may slightly change, there is no gainsaying that Biden, too, is looking to end America’s longest war. 

In the US, there is simply no appetite for the war. There is now a bi-partisan consensus that the Taliban cannot be militarily defeated and that the only way out is talks and a mutually agreed power-sharing formula. There is also a consensus that the Taliban need to be politically mainstreamed. 

The questions that remain are: a) how to achieve an intra-Afghan settlement and b) how to defeat the still-strong ISIS.

As such, while the war may be ending, the so-called ‘Afghan conundrum’ remains very much unresolved; hence, the continued relevance of Pakistan for the US in Afghanistan. 

A significant ingredient that will be available in the post-Trump era is that the US will revert to its traditional policy of using the ‘carrot & stick’ vis-à-vis Pakistan. 

While Joe Biden has a pragmatic and favorable view of Pakistan, as some Pakistani officials believe, his pragmatism has roots in an understanding that Pakistan is the key to resolving the ‘Afghan conundrum.’ Such a favorable view will continue to prevail as long as Biden sees Pakistan playing on the US side. 

For Pakistan, under the current circumstances, it is extremely important, to play on the US side in Afghanistan. The US policy of withdrawal is only matched by a widely shared and a strong desire in Pakistan to see the Afghanistan war coming to a negotiated end. There is no desire in Pakistan to see Afghanistan descending into another period of civil-war. 

It is for this reason that Pakistan too has adopted an approach to talks that doesn’t favor a full Taliban victory. This is a significant departure from the 1990s when Pakistan would have favored a total victory for the Taliban. As it stands, Pakistan’s pragmatic approach has allowed for a greater convergence between Pakistan and the US. 

Let’s not forget that it was the Trump administration’s decision to end the war through talks. And Trump had decided to stop all coalition support funds to Pakistan. This showed how Pakistan-US ties were at a very low ebb when Trump came to power in 2016. However, the ‘Afghan question’ subsequently allowed Pakistan to be reinvented by some pragmatists in Washington, who were able to convince Trump as well. 

The turn-around that happened then continues till date, reinforcing once again the fact that Biden’s own pragmatism, too, will be guided by what Pakistan does and doesn’t do in Afghanistan. 

As I mentioned above, there is no desire in Pakistan to prolong the war or seek a total Taliban control of Afghanistan. Pakistan does not want to get the blame for failing the intra-Afghan peace process. 

Pakistan, therefore, will be looking to engage with the US more deeply. There are many reasons for this. Pakistan has a real desire to help the US end the war responsibly so that there is no spillover of after-shocks. Pakistan doesn’t want another wave of terrorism hitting the country. 

Second, Pakistan continues to value its ties with the US for economic reasons as well. The US remains Pakistan’s largest bilateral export market, with trade ties between the two countries being worth US$6.16bn in the last financial year, according to Pakistan’s Central Bank data. Of that, US$3.9bn were from Pakistani exports.

Given the economic situation prevailing in Pakistan, Pakistan’s ‘poor performance’ in Afghanistan could easily make it a scapegoat, which could jeopardize its trade with the US.

Pakistani officials are, therefore, looking to play a more pro-active role. As some Pakistani officials quoted in international media said, in the wake of the goings-on in the US-the controversy over elections and the massive spread of COVID-19- it is possible that the Biden administration will remain focused on domestic matters rather than on foreign policy issues, including Afghanistan.

In such a situation, it will be a lot more important for Pakistan to maintain the fragile peace in Afghanistan it has helped achieve so far. 

Pakistan, in other words, will have to adopt a more pronounced, a more realistic, and a more pragmatic approach out of its own interest in ending the war, avoiding instability to prevent another refugee influx and maintaining strong trade ties with the US. There is no gainsaying that Pakistan sees this as the key to avoiding FATF blacklisting permanently. 

A lot of this will be helped by Biden’s own Afghan policy, including his desire to leave a residual force in Afghanistan after a large-scale drawdown. Biden will certainly need Pakistan to manage this contentious issue with the Taliban, who have always demanded a complete US withdrawal.