When a phone call becomes an issue

The US side was only keen to discuss Afghanistan


Kamran Yousaf August 09, 2021
This writer is a senior foreign affairs correspondent at The Express Tribune

National Security Adviser Dr Moeed Yusuf returned home from a much-talked about visit to Washington. He described his engagements there as ‘constructive’. “Besides continuing discussions with @JakeSullivan46 that began in Geneva, engaged with the Hill, think tanks, media, & our diaspora. The Pak-US relationship is moving in the right direction.

The focus of both sides is on outcomes, not optics,” he tweeted. The NSA was also accompanied by the DG ISI, though he returned earlier after meeting the relevant authorities in Washington. As per sources the visit did not go as planned as Pakistan’s efforts to seek broader engagement with the US beyond security and Afghanistan were met with a lukewarm response from the Biden administration.

While the Pakistani side wanted to focus on bilateral cooperation apart from Afghanistan, the US side was only keen to discuss Afghanistan. The only high-profile meeting the NSA was able to get was with his American counterpart. There was no photo op or any coverage of the meeting. There was no joint statement either. The American NSA only commented about his meeting with Moeed in a brief tweet. Contrary to Moeed’s tweet where he focused on bilateral relationship, Jake Sullivan’s focus was more on Afghanistan. But Moeed was not bothered about the optics.

He insisted the focus was more on substance than optics and headlines. Whether the visit made any headway can be judged from his interview with The Financial Times where Moeed apparently complained about President Biden not calling the PM. “The president of the United States hasn’t spoken to the prime minister of such an important country who the US itself says is make-or-break in some cases, in some ways, in Afghanistan — we struggle to understand the signal, right?” Moeed told the American newspaper. “We’ve been told every time that . . . [the phone call] will happen, it’s technical reasons or whatever. But frankly, people don’t believe it,” he said.

“If a phone call is a concession, if a security relationship is a concession, Pakistan has options,” he added, refusing to elaborate. But before wrapping up his visit, Moeed clarified that he didn’t complain to the Biden administration, saying the phone call was not an issue. Nevertheless the phone call has become an issue. Diplomatic sources say the Biden administration is now using the telephone call with Prime Minister Imran Khan as leverage. The reason the Biden administration is giving a cold shoulder to Pakistan stems from its desire to seek Islamabad’s more proactive role to stop Taliban’s rapid rise in Afghanistan. The Biden administration is convinced that Pakistan is no longer using the influence it exercised over the Taliban earlier and hence the group is not seeking peace talks.

Pakistan on the other hand insists that since the US gave the withdrawal date, its influence over the Taliban has diminished. Meanwhile, the opinion in the US is divided on the US approach towards Pakistan. Two prominent retired US generals have advised the Biden Administration to establish “a functional and mutually beneficial relationship” with Pakistan, saying there is not better alternative than engaging with a country having unstable borders, a nuclear standoff with India, the continued presence of terrorist organisations and the high potential for all this to disrupt the American interests.

These ex-servicemen are Lt Gen (retd) Michael K. Nagata, who retired from the US Army in 2019 after 38 years of active duty, and Gen (retd) Joseph L Votel, who retired after a nearly 40-year-long career during which he also served as CENTCOM commander from March 2016 to March 2019. But it is clear that everything hinges on the Afghan endgame. If the Taliban eventually take over, the Pak-US ties are sure to see a further dip.

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