Why did Joe Biden rush to visit Pakistan?

Published: January 22, 2011

The writer is a retired brigadier and a former president of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute

Joe Biden, the US Vice President, spent a very busy day in Islamabad on January 12, 2011, on a rather hastily scheduled visit, after his trip to Kabul.

Ostensibly, this unscheduled visit was to reassure Pakistan of America’s long-term commitment to Pakistan, and to express its concern on Salmaan Taseer’s murder and the public reaction of supporting Mumtaz Qadri.

Before looking at recent developments that might have a better explanation for this unscheduled visit, it is important to recall that Biden is the strongest opponent to prolonged US presence in Afghanistan and continued to oppose the ‘surge’ of US troops there, even after it was sanctioned by a reluctant Obama. While Biden and Obama favoured talks with the Taliban, Petraeus — supported by the secretaries of state and defence — opposed talks until a decisive US victory forces them to the negotiating table from a position of weakness. Needless to add, the GHQ opposes Petraeus’ policy and doubts that US forces can ever achieve a ‘decisive victory’ over the Taliban.

Since December 2010, events have speeded up; events that might lead the US to re-think the ‘Petraeus policy’ and offer a more plausible explanation for Biden’s visit. To begin with, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who heads the Afghan High Council for Peace and is the only Tajik veteran of the Afghan-Soviet war era to have kept contacts with some Taliban members, addressed a Pashtun Jirga (council) in Nangarhar (a Taliban infested region) and said words to the effect that ‘this is your country’ and ‘we have all made mistakes that we need to learn from.’ Most significantly, the Jirga concluded that negotiations with the Taliban should begin.

Following this remarkable event, Rabbani was dispatched to Tehran while Afghan President Karzai travelled to Istanbul for the fifth summit, hosted by Turkish President Abdullah Gul for Karzai and Zardari, in another attempt to bring the two closer together. Turkey seems to be succeeding in something that the US has consistently failed at. At the conclusion of the summit, Turkey came up with a surprising offer: It was prepared to ‘open a representative office for the Taliban’— a suggestion which, according to Karzai, came from “dignitaries close to the Taliban”. Many have interpreted Karzai’s comment as a reference to Pakistani officials. The Taliban have not denied that this suggestion might have come from them!

Meanwhile, Rabbani’s visit to Tehran, where Tajiks are more welcomed than Pashtuns, is seen as an attempt to bring Tehran on board — an attempt at reconciliation with the Taliban. Tehran, with predominantly Shia Muslims, has always been concerned about the re-emergence of the diehard Taliban, who are Sunni and mistreat the Shia minority. Rabbani’s visit was not met with total success, but it was soon followed up by a visit from Muhammed Fahim, another Tajik and currently vice president of Afghanistan. Curiously, Fahim’s visit coincided with that of an erstwhile KGB General, Viktor Ivanov, who now heads the Russian anti-narcotic force. It seems that Tehran is prepared to ‘wait and see’.

Early this month, Rabbani led a 25-member delegation to Islamabad where, significantly, he met the COAS in the GHQ; a fact that signals the COAS’ endorsement of the ‘Burhani initiative’, given Burhani’s commitment of excluding the US from negotiations with the Taliban.

While allies in the war against terrorism, the US and Pakistan have significantly diverging interests in the ‘end game’ in Afghanistan, particularly in the pursuit of the ‘Petraeus policy’. For its success, Pakistan has been subjected to the continuous ‘do more’ mantra, with reference to the presence of the Haqqani group in North Waziristan; an act that the GHQ has consistently refused.

In fact, during the meeting that took place last year between Obama and Pakistani COAS Kayani in Washington DC last year, after having heard Obama, Kayani handed over an 11-page document to Obama, containing his analysis of the situation, and where and why the US was in error. Reportedly, Obama was taken aback, but assured Kayani that the document would be “fully and seriously considered”.

In pursuit of divergent interests, the two allies have frequently been playing a double game with each other. While Pakistan’s duplicity has frequently been highlighted in the US media, only a few analysts have pointed out America’s consistent duplicity and the fact that Pakistan, being a geographical neighbour of Afghanistan, has greater justification for guarding its interests in the long-term than the US.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was captured in a CIA/ISI joint operation and the ISI had agreed to hand him over to the CIA. However, during his debriefing after the capture, he revealed that his capture was ‘arranged’, for him to negotiate a deal with the CIA, excluding both Mullah Omar and Pakistan. Baradar obviously concluded that the ISI was ‘in’ on the deal. On learning this, Pakistan reneged and refused to hand Baradar over to the CIA.

I, for one, see absolutely nothing wrong with the duplicity on both sides. Isn’t this an age-old practice? Aren’t the organs of all states supposed to guard the interests of their own states, even at the cost of their allies, if the interests conflict? All I find cynically amusing is the effort by the US to occupy a moral high ground to talk down to its ally!

However, as soon as Biden’s visit to Pakistan was announced, The Washington Post, based on his briefings by senior officials, listed his priorities for the visit which, apart from reassuring Pakistan on a long-term commitment, included three important shifts in the US policy towards Pakistan: a) The US would no longer insist on an operation in North Waziristan; b) Biden would categorically reassure Pakistan that the US would not undertake ground-based, cross-border operations in Pakistan territory and c) US recognises that “Pakistan has an important, if not dominant, role in negotiating with the Taliban”.

If the Post is correct in its assessment, perhaps Kayani deserves to be credited with having forced a major shift in US policy through his written analysis, handed over to Obama, and his endorsement of the ‘Burhani initiative’.

Perhaps, if my assessment is correct, Biden’s visit might actually be the harbinger of peace in this war-torn region!

Published in The Express Tribune, January 22nd, 2011.

Reader Comments (8)

  • Jan 22, 2011 - 2:12AM

    Bidden is pro PPP, he was there on the election day in 2008. Bidden visit was actually to pressurize PPP’s regime to conduct the N Waziristan operation. Uncle Sam wanted N Warizitan operation for long to get Hekmetyar but Pakistan played well and convinced to first launch operation in S.W and get Mehsud. US agreed and both the allies succeeded. Now they want Pakistan to return the favor but alas..!!! we havent learned our lesson and still playing double game.Recommend

  • Ardeshir J. Elavia
    Jan 22, 2011 - 4:54AM

    Hi Shaukat,

    Read your article with interest. Your assessment is quite correct, it is very painful for the US to admit they are in a no win situation and hence want to bargain from a position of strength, for that to happen the “surge” was one avenue open to them, 30000 or 40000 more boots on the ground are not enough to tame the insurgency in a country like Afghanistan it’s people fighting for their freedon from occupation.

    Pakistan army should refrain from carrying out operations in North Waziristan. The army and civilian casualties have been horrific enough in previous operations/encounters in Swat and South Waziristan causing massive internal displacements and to boot counter productive to Pakistan’s own interests and security.Recommend

  • Syed Nadir El-Edroos
    Jan 22, 2011 - 5:18AM

    While General Kayani’s decisions are binding and beyond question, that doesnt mean that every other state behaves in the same manner. Perhaps you should also consider that the recent victory of the Republicans in the mid-term election, who are more hawkish on the military and likely to push for more drastic actions in the War on Terror is influencing US policy. V-President Biden was one of the key advocates for extending civilian aid to Pakistan, on what later became the Kerry-Lugar Bill. The Republicans however believe that the Democrats are soft on terrorism and its policy on Pakistan equates to pumping money in and getting nothing in return.

    In that context V-President Biden’s visit and the change in rhetoric are measures to show that US-Pakistan are moving forward, and in a direction that is desirable and above criticism of the Republican majority Congress.

    Nothing has changed, all that has changed is the rhetoric to appease critics and for experts such as yourself to conclude that alls well and backs need to be slapped and our leaders hailed.

    As for Turkey, the US nudged it to take on a role in bringing Afghanistan and Pakistan on to one table as the Saudi’s were not happy to deal with Zardari and Co, and the fact that Saudi Arabia and the money that fuels radical Madrasas across the country are part of the problem rather than the solution. Recommend

  • Parvez+Mahmud
    Jan 22, 2011 - 11:42AM

    This analysis makes lot of sense. ThanksRecommend

  • Jan 22, 2011 - 1:50PM

    Aren’t the organs of all states supposed to guard the interests of their own states, even at the cost of their allies, if the interests conflict?

    That a retired brigadier is saying this is no surprise and that the respondents like @pervez finds a lot of sense in this speaks of successful indoctrination of the pakistani people.

    What interests of Pakistan are being guarded in their duplicity? I am no analyst but this is what I see:

    The nato trucks are attacked apparently at random
    Pakistan continues to be at the receiving end of drugs and weapons and there is no end in sight
    The killings in karachi are on the increase and fingers are being pointed towards the restive border areas as sources of the trouble in the coastal city
    Should I even mention the lives of the people in the border areas when indoctrination has penetrated the governor’s security posse?

    I think the author should be honest when he talks of the state’s interests – he is referrring to the interests of the agencies. What does the US do when they realise that they are dealing with an establishment that is only looking out for its own interests and to hell with the people of the country? They have to devise ways to bypass them or marginalise them. Recommend

  • Sara
    Jan 22, 2011 - 11:39PM

    @ Prasad

    U should read the book THE NEW GREAT GAME, and must understand the new great game, then u’ll definitely know some of the background of the incidents happening in Pakistan.Recommend

  • Jan 23, 2011 - 9:20PM

    @Sara

    U should read the book THE NEW GREAT
    GAME, and must understand the new
    great game, then u’ll definitely know
    some of the background of the
    incidents happening in Pakistan.

    And you would greatly benefit by reading a book titled ‘The Scorpion’s Tail’ by Zahid Hussain. This explains background,foreground and dynamics of all the incidents happening in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the rest of the world.Recommend

  • R S JOHAR
    Jan 23, 2011 - 11:27PM

    Pakistan by not under-taking operations in NWA is only delaying the inevitable and will pay a unbearable price a few years later. As per experience of the past, Haqqani group did not dance to the tunes of Pakistan and this time they will surely join their counterparts along with Panjab outfits to complete their unfinished agenda of imposing shariat ideology over the whole country. God bless Pakistan.Recommend

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