In the run-up to the United States withdrawal from Afghanistan and since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, there has been much internal discussion about the nature and scope of US-Pakistan relations. The hearings in the US Congress on Afghanistan and a Republican-sponsored bill in the US Senate, titled the Afghanistan Counterterrorism, Oversight, and Accountability Act, have added to a sense of wariness in Pakistan regarding the direction of bilateral relations. What should Pakistan expect going forward?
There are three levels at which to analyse US-Pakistan relations. Two of those deal with domestic politics within the US and Pakistan, while the third is about how the current government in Islamabad can engage President Joe Biden’s administration and to what extent.
Let’s begin with the US domestic political scene.
It is divisive and growing worse. A Pew research paper calls it “exceptional.” For Biden the hot seat is getting hotter. The Afghanistan hearings are part of the broader problem of political division that is manifesting itself in different ways. There is no gainsaying that the Biden administration miscalculated the capacity of its client government in Kabul to withstand the Taliban advance; consequent to that it also mismanaged the withdrawal and evacuations. But the script for much of what happened was written by the Trump administration. In fact, a case can be made that the final fiasco was a chronicle of a failure foretold.
But Republicans are playing politics, deliberately taking a snapshot view of the last month of US troop presence before Kabul’s fall. This was evident from the questions at the hearings, which tended to focus on recent events rather than referring to Trump’s decision to start a dialogue with the Taliban and, as part of the Doha deal, to withdraw US (and allied) troops by May 1 this year.
Result: Biden is facing the gravest political crisis of his presidency. According to a NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll Biden’s approval rating slid to just 43 percent in the wake of the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The survey conducted early September determined that the ratings were down six percentage points from a previous survey in July. NPR reported that it “is the lowest mark for Biden in the poll since taking office. The decline is principally due to independents — just 36 percent of them approve of the job he’s doing, a 10-point drop.”
Another point the Republicans are pressing is about the credibility of Biden’s statements, in effect accusing him of lying about his “military commanders’ recommendations to keep 2,500 troops in the country, playing down warnings of the risks of a Taliban victory, and exaggerating America’s ability to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a safe haven for militant groups like al Qaeda.”
The situation hasn’t improved for Biden, given testimonies of Generals Mark Milley and Frank McKenzie, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman and US CENTCOM commander, respectively. McKenzie told the House committee on Wednesday that he had warned that a complete withdrawal would lead to the collapse of the Afghan military and the Afghan government, adding this was also the assessment of the top commander on the ground in Afghanistan. Milley, however, also stressed that the failure goes back to a number of mistakes the US made during the 20-year war effort — “My assessment is, this is a 20-year war, and it wasn’t lost in the last 20 days or even 20 months.”
The Republicans aren’t biting, though. There has also been a sharp focus on an August television interview by Biden to ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos in which Biden had denied his commanders had recommended keeping 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. He said then: “No. No one said that to me that I can recall.”
Further pressure has come in the form of a Republican-sponsored bill that, among other things, seeks to “provide strategies for continued counterterrorism in Afghanistan, sanction the Taliban for terrorism and human rights abuses, authorize sanctions for individuals and foreign countries providing support to the Taliban, and place restrictions on non-humanitarian foreign assistance to Afghanistan.”
The bill also mentions the Government of Pakistan and Islamabad’s alleged support to the Taliban on a range of issues. While Pakistan has officially shot back at the wordings of the bill, there’s little likelihood of it passing because it is a purely Republican draft and does not seem to have bipartisan support. Also, the assessment of failure the bill seeks to address would require a drawn-out process. Still, it is an attempt to complicate matters for the Biden administration and reduce space for it to deal with Pakistan and Afghanistan in a way that can help US interests in the region.
The second level, equally problematic, is Pakistan’s approach to the US. Despite statements that Pakistan wants a robust and broad-based relationship with the US, the reality within the policymaking circles appears to be different with one camp pushing for closer relations while the other arguing that if things don’t work, let that be. This puts those who have to actually work the relationship in a bind.
What is the policy direction here? There seems to be no clarity about it. While the foreign minister spoke of a strategic partnership with the US — he seemed to be playing off his own bat — another minister, Shireen Mazari, shot off a Twitter thread blasting the US Vice President Kamala Harris on the basis of what the Indian foreign secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, told the media after a closed-door meeting. No attempt was made to find out whether VP Harris had actually said what was attributed to her but Mazari nonetheless described Harris’ ‘remarks’ as “nonsensical tirade ag[ainst] Pakistan echoing delusional views of fascist PM Modi.” The thread is still in the public domain.
Despite statements that Pakistan wants a robust and broad-based relationship with the US, the reality within the policymaking circles appears to be different with one camp pushing for closer relations while the other arguing that if things don’t work, let that be
The other problem is chest-thumping on social media by a number of former high officials, military and civil, on the Taliban victory and the US’ humiliating defeat. It is a matter of record that many such statements have been picked up by US legislators and thrown in the face of Pakistani policymakers visiting Washington and trying to make a case for US-Pakistan relations. Not only are such comments highly irresponsible, they are downright damaging to Pakistan’s interests.
A former diplomat, Abdul Basit, tweeted on September 23, “Will time ever come when Afghanistan and Pakistan form a confederation? Realistic or quixotic?” It boggles the mind that a former ambassador with decades of diplomatic experience would fail to appreciate the import of such a suggestion. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Even the prime minister, Imran Khan, has made statements that could have been best avoided or at least formulated differently.
Corollary: in the absence of any clarity about what Pakistan requires from the US, Pakistan is in a policy limbo.
This also brings us to the third level, i.e., how the current government in Islamabad can engage President Joe Biden’s administration and to what extent? The sherpas continue to do their work. But in the absence of clarity on Pakistan’s side and the Republican political pressure on Biden in the US, there’s not much that can be achieved in real terms. Even so, given the spoiler element — India et al smarting from events in Afghanistan and frantically trying to get Pakistan sanctioned — it becomes more pressing for Pakistan to have a coherent policy towards the US.
The US and Pakistani national security advisors have had two comprehensive meetings. From briefings by Pakistan’s NSA, Dr Moeed Yusuf, it is clear that the two sides have been discussing (and have principally agreed to) a broad range of issues as part of bilateral relations. This is precisely what Pakistan needs and has been asking for. However, it is clear that for the US the immediacy of Afghanistan and developments in that country are a priority matter. In other words, for the US the litmus test for moving in other areas is what Pakistan can do for it in post-withdrawal Afghanistan.
For the US, Taliban commitments with reference to transnational terrorist groups and CT are crucial. That’s where geography brings in Pakistan. During the Congressional hearings, General McKenzie told US lawmakers that US and Pakistan were “involved in ongoing deliberations” over the air corridor. “Over the last 20 years we’ve been able to use what we call the air boulevard to go in over western Pakistan and that’s become something that’s vital to us, as well as certain landlines of communication. And we’ll be working with the Pakistanis in the days and weeks ahead to look at what [the US-Pakistan] relationship is going to look like in the future.”
The US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman will be visiting the region and will meet with Pakistani officials during her stopover in Islamabad on October 7/8. She is the second high-level Biden administration official to travel to Pakistan after CIA chief, William Burns.
The US wants Pakistan’s help, especially in relation to Afghanistan; equally, it needs to ensure at least cold peace between Pakistan and India as part of its longstanding crisis management strategy. Put another way, US goals in relation to Pakistan are fairly clear. It is up to Pakistan to get out of its policy limbo apropos of the US. That requires NOT penning abusive Twitter tirades and instead acting and dealing with the US firmly but professionally and through official channels only.