Joe Biden’s election and Pakistan

Islamabad has to carefully play its cards, while dealing with Afghanistan in particular


Syed Akhtar Ali Shah November 25, 2020
The writer is a practising lawyer. He holds PHD in Political Science and heads a think-tank ‘Good Governance Forum’. He can be reached at [email protected]

Considering Trump inimical to the interests of Pakistan, Muslims as well as immigrants, the victory of Joe Biden as the president of the United States was a cause of jubilance for most if not all Pakistanis. Although there might be many reasons for Trump’s failure in office, however, one should not jump to conclusions as far as serving the interests of Pakistan are concerned. The office of the US president in the last 72 years has alternated between the Republicans and the Democrats. The question one should be asking is: what difference did it make?

History tells us that national policies, of which foreign policy is the reflection, are not merely determined by ideological moorings and idealistic notions of democracy, justice and human rights but are driven by purely national interests. In pursuit of those national interests, countries adjust their foreign policy objectives. Similarly, the US foreign policy claims of democratic idealism and values but in actuality the policy has not been dictated by that idealism but real politics pursuing their own national interests.

The US foreign policy can be best understood in its historic perspective crafted around different doctrines, of which the most popularly known are the Monroe Doctrine, Truman Doctrine, Carter Doctrine and the Reagan Doctrine.

The Monroe Doctrine categorically announced that the US would not allow European colonies to further colonise in America or interfere with the independent states thus asserting America’s hegemony in the area.

The Truman Doctrine was a naked announcement to send money, equipment, or military forces to countries that were threatened by and or were resisting Communism, in what was later known as the policy of containment of Communism and preventing expansion of Soviet influence, triggering the Cold War.

The Carter Doctrine was a response to the growing influence of Soviet Union in the Middle East, whose oil was considered vital for the national interest of the US, while the Soviet Union was considered a hindrance to the free movement of oil. In order to deal with the perceived threat, Carter clearly mentioned that the US would see an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian region as an assault on US, and such an assault would be repelled by any means necessary, including military force. Under that policy he threatened to use military force, if necessary to protect American economic and national interests in the Persian Gulf.

The preponderance of the Reagan Doctrine remained effective from the 1980s until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, departing from simple containment to more covert and overt means to assist those fighting communist governments. In this zeal even, the name of the so-called Holy Jihad was used against the government in Afghanistan. During this period, convergence of interest brought all Jihadis at the table of Reagan at the White House.

The Bush Doctrine in fact was a combination of a set of foreign policies that George W Bush articulated during his eight years as president, in particular driven by 9/11. The crux of these policies was based on the belief that those harbouring terrorist outfits would be equated with terrorists the same way. In line with that policy, the US went after places from where the threat was assumed to have emanated. The landing in Afghanistan was an offshoot of that policy.

Although Obama, following Bush, made election promises to end all wars, he later after a re-appraisal of the situation, crafted his own Af-Pak strategy which was vividly described in Bob Woodward’s book, Obama’s War. The strategy described Pakistan and Afghanistan as two countries but one problem and emphasised on setting the calculus of Pakistan right. In addition to that his focus was on Asia Pacific to counter China. According to the book, Biden was a pivotal figure in devising and implementing Obama’s strategy, which resulted in an increase in the number of US armed personnel being deployed in Afghanistan for counter terrorism purposes. As such, Obama’s strategies may have deep imprints on Biden when he assumes presidency.

In Woodward’s book, the then vice-president, Biden, in his meeting told Pakistan’s president about Obama’s thinking: “Afghanistan is going to be his war, and we cannot fix Afghanistan without Pakistan’s help.” Biden further stated that American success would depend on Pakistan, and US taxpayers would not support assistance to Pakistan if the Taliban and Al Qaeda continued to operate from Pakistani sanctuaries to kill US soldiers and plot attacks. He also described Al Qaeda, the impetus of war in Afghanistan, as Pakistan’s problem, obviously a reflection of hardened views, always negated by Pakistan.

A lot of water has flowed down the Attock gorge of Indus since then. New realities of China’s One Belt One Road Initiative and Doha Agreement have emerged. Biden would look at things from the prism of US’s own security and vital interests appertained thereto. In a scenario where Biden feels that the threat to the national interests of the US emanate from Afghanistan, focus will again be on Pakistan to facilitate the resolution of conflict in Afghanistan to the satisfaction of the US. Moreover, Biden will not give an easy walk to China and will be tougher than Trump. Therefore, the strategic presence of the US in Afghanistan and her counter terrorism role over there cannot be ruled out.

The discussions and expressed opinion of Biden towards Pakistan and Afghanistan during his incumbency as chairman Foreign Relations Committee and as vice-president highlighted in different writings are quite helpful in comprehending the US strategic thinking. Therefore, we have to carefully play our cards, while dealing with Afghanistan in particular. In this context principles of balance of power have to be maintained to prevent or at least mitigate the conflict. This can be done by systematically ensuring equilibrium via alignment of countervailing coalitions.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 25th, 2020.

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