Pakistan-US relations in the Biden era

It is unlikely that President Biden would concern himself directly with Pakistan

Shahid Javed Burki March 01, 2021
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

How will Pakistan fare during the Joseph Biden era that began on January 20, 2021, when the 46th President of the United States moved into the White House? The question is easy to answer at one level: there is no doubt that Islamabad’s relations with Washington will be much better than they were when Donald Trump occupied the White House. In one of his first-of-the-year tweets, Trump called Pakistan all kinds of names. He may not have exactly used those words but for him Pakistan was devious, untrustworthy, a cheat and a liar. It had received billions of dollars from the US but given nothing in return. For Trump “return” translated as extreme pressure on the Taliban in Afghanistan to stop fighting against the Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul so that president Trump could pull out his troops from Afghanistan. This attitude sent Pakistan into the orbit of China. Is it likely to remain there?

There were other Trump interests that meant sidelining Pakistan. One of them was the preference for strong leaders. He was inclined to favour authoritarian rule over democratic dispensation. That was one of the reasons he was strongly in favour of leaders such as India’s Narendra Modi who was taking his country step-by-step towards authoritarianism. One can say with confidence that whenever Biden turns his attention towards Pakistan, he is not likely to use the language his predecessor used.

Policy experts are studying with great interest the direction in which President Biden is likely to take the US. On what areas of the world and within them which countries the new president is likely to focus his attention on and that of his administration is indicated by the order in which he contacted on telephone the world leaders he will be working with to promote his country’s strategic interests. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada was the first to be called. He was also the first with whom Biden had a virtual meeting in the White House. This was a clear departure from the way Trump had behaved towards Canada, the northern neighbour of the US with which the country has the longest border. He had openly spoken against the Canadian leader calling him weak and untrustworthy.

In the American system of policymaking a great deal of change occurs when power passes from one presidency to another. This is the case in particular if there is also a change in the political party that governs from the White House. Such a change occurred on January 20, when Trump vacated the White House and Biden moved in. Trump left no doubt that he was reluctant to leave; he continued to claim the election was stolen from him and that he was the clear winner but for the machinations of the Democratic Party. He encouraged his followers to take matters into their hands and block the Congress from certifying Biden and Kamala Harris as the winners of the presidency and the vice-presidency. Accepting his advice, hundreds of Trump supporters broke into the Capitol building on January 6, earning for that day a place in the country’s history when the American democracy was near collapse. In the mayhem that followed five people died including an officer of the Capital Police force.

Trump continued his defiance and departed from the traditions established over 250 years of American democracy when the outgoing president not only attended the inauguration ceremony of the one coming in but also welcomed him to the White House. Trump did neither. He flew out of Washington and went to his estate in Florida while Biden was being sworn in. On his first day in office, President Biden signed a number of executive orders that reversed some of the positions his predecessor had taken affecting America’s international relations. What would be the new President’s approach to Pakistan?

It is unlikely that President Biden would concern himself directly with Pakistan. His policy towards Islamabad will be the sum total of how he handles Pakistan’s immediate neighbours. Islamabad’s approach to Washington, therefore, would be reactive rather than active. The US has deep interest in all four neighbours with which Pakistan shares its borders. Beginning with Afghanistan, Biden has asked his colleagues working in the area of foreign policy to study the US-Afghan relations over the last two decades. The peace deal Trump’s America signed with the Taliban on February 29, 2020 had a number of markers. The one of critical importance is the May 1 deadline by which America was committed to pull out its entire military contingent out of Afghanistan. The US has been bringing back its personnel since February 29, 2020; by the time Biden arrived in the White House, only 2,500 soldiers were left in the country. In his conversation with General Frank McKenzie, the head of America’s Central Command, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, pointed out that his country did not wish to see the repeat of 1988-89 when first the Soviet Union and then the US withdrew from Afghanistan. The result was utter chaos the consequences of which are still being felt in Pakistan.

Going clockwise we get to China — the world’s second largest economy and possibly also the second strongest military power. Under President Xi Jinping who has been in power since 2012, China has become assertive, particularly in its neighbourhood. It is aggressively projecting its economic and military power. This did not sit well with former president Trump and also worries his successor. Relations between Washington and Beijing are likely to remain tense. This has consequences for Pakistan which moved into China’s orbit to counter Trump’s undisguised hostility.

Next in line is India with which president Trump had developed a close relationship. This was because of Trump Organization’s deep economic interest in India and also the former president’s preference for strong leaders. As already noted, in Prime Minister Modi, Trump saw the type of authoritarian leader he liked to deal with. While Biden has not shown his hand with respect to India and South Asia, the liberal press in his country which he reads with great interest has become wary of the direction in which Modi’s India is moving. What troubles the press was described as “Mr Modi’s Assault on Dissent”, in an editorial by The Washington Post. Noting some of the moves by the Indian Prime Minister, the newspaper recognised that while “Indian society remains robust, the question is whether it will be enough to check Mr Modi’s drift toward autocracy.”

Finally, we arrive at Iran with which the US has had a difficult relationship since the 1979 Islamic Revolution when emperor Raza Shah Pahlavi, a close friend of the US, was replaced by clerics who labeled America as the “Great Satan” and defied it in the waters of the Persian Gulf. On a few occasions, Trump having pulled out of the nuclear deal president Barack Obama had signed with Tehran, was at a near-war situation with Iran. The hostility was encouraged by Israel and Saudi Arabia. How Pakistan develops its approach towards Biden’s America would be determined by how the latter behaves in the former’s neighbourhood.



Published in The Express Tribune, March 1st, 2021.

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