Pakistan is once again at the receiving end of a familiar and expected barrage of criticism from the United States’ political and military leadership after the latter’s chaotic...
Pakistan is once again at the receiving end of a familiar and expected barrage of criticism from the United States’ political and military leadership after the latter’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
While there are valid questions about the US failure in Afghanistan even after having spent billions of dollars, posing those questions squarely to Pakistan is a misplaced reaction.
The latest move is the new bill tabled in the US Senate by 22 Republican senators led by Senator Jim Risch calling for a probe into Pakistan’s alleged role in Afghanistan. There is a sense of deja vu as the bill is a stark reminder of the ‘Pressler Amendment’ that slapped sanctions on Pakistan after the withdrawal of former Soviet Union forces from Afghanistan in 1989.
The new proposed bill, titled ‘Afghanistan Counterterrorism, Oversight and Accountability Act’ (ACOAA), seeks a report from the US secretary of state in consultation with the secretary of defence and the director of national intelligence for “an assessment of support by state and non-state actors, including the government of Pakistan, for the Taliban between 2001 and 2020, including the provision of sanctuary space, financial support, intelligence support, logistics and medical support, training, equipping, and tactical, operational or strategic direction.”
While aimed at scapegoating Pakistan for American failures in Afghanistan, this legislation has an overriding domestic angle. President Biden is facing a major political crisis with his approval ratings rapidly sliding. Growing resentment and criticism over US failure in Afghanistan, especially in the backdrop of Centcom Commander General Frank McKenzie’s statement at the Congressional hearing regarding his pre-warning to President Biden against complete withdrawal from Afghanistan have initiated a heated debate at the domestic political front.
Since President Trump had paved the way for the US drawdown by initiating the Doha talks with the Taliban, the Republicans have not criticised withdrawal of forces. Instead, they are raising questions over the process and criticising the ‘rushed and disastrous US withdrawal from Afghanistan.’
The Democrats, who have a majority in both Houses, are seeing such moves as a tool for political point-scoring against President Biden. Therefore, they are likely to stay away from this bill due to its domestic dynamics. Consequently, the bill is unlikely to pass from the Senate primarily because it does not have bipartisan support at this stage.
Notwithstanding its fate, such emerging trends are worrisome, and Islamabad will have to tread very carefully. The Republican bill, along with the Congressional Hearing, is pointing at a troubled trajectory of Pak-US relations in the coming months and years. The Democrats, although equally critical of Pakistan’s alleged role in US military failures in Afghanistan, seem keen on maintaining some space for engagement as they might need Islamabad’s support in their future counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan. The Biden Administration, however, may also use such tactics to pressurise Pakistan to gain more concessions in future transactions such as pressing upon the provision of an air corridor for maintaining ‘over the horizon’ counterterrorism capability as already hinted at by General McKenzie during his testimony to Congress.
While Pakistan has categorically refused provision of basing rights, demands of an air corridor are likely to be another sticking point in the absence of other broader areas of engagement. Likewise, the sudden re-emergence of unfounded concerns about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme is another indication of negative undertones of bilateral relations in the future.
The ACOAA is also indicative of ever-growing power competition and underscores a growing impatience in US policy circles vis-a-vis China and Russia. Other than Pakistan, the bill focuses on developments in the Asia-Pacific region and demands a report on Russian and Chinese activities in the region, especially territorial disputes of South and Central Asian countries bordering China. It also focuses on Beijing’s investments in land and seaports, military activities and installations, transportation infrastructure, and energy projects across the region and demands a report on US countermeasures.
Although President Biden talked about ‘recalibrating priorities’ after two decades of war and multilateralism in his first policy speech at the United Nations General Assembly last month, the situation on the ground is pointing at a more intense strategic competition with the announcement of ‘AUKUS’ – a trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and the US, under which the latter two will help Canberra acquire nuclear-powered submarines.
The ACOAA also seems to have a clear Indian imprint in the text. There is a special reference to Indo-China border disputes, and it calls on the US government to ‘identify areas of diplomatic, economic and defence cooperation with India to address the challenges, and an assessment of how it has affected India’s cooperation with the US.’ The astounding reference to Pakistan’s alleged role in the Taliban offensive in the Panjshir Valley based on fake Indian propaganda clearly manifests a growing influence of the Indian lobby on the US Congress and its ability to manipulate facts to malign Pakistan.
As pointed out earlier, such actions are likely to be the first of many more challenges that Islamabad is likely to face in its relations with Washington. They would require a well-connected response at three levels. First and foremost, despite the shrinking space to manoeuvre, Pakistan will have to balance itself in the face of growing US-China competition and must avoid being caught in the crossfire of this great power rivalry. Creative diplomacy would enable Islamabad to be on the right side of China while avoiding being on the wrong side of the US.
Second, at the bilateral level, Pakistan must continue to expand the existing leverage vis-a-vis the US. Despite growing challenges, all is not lost in Pak-US bilateral relations. There are multiple areas where cooperation would be necessary and mutually beneficial. Areas of future engagement may range from US engagement with the Taliban, refugee issues, counterterrorism, intelligence sharing, evacuation of US personnel from Afghanistan, and regional stability.
Lastly, Pakistan needs to demonstrate a sense of calm and sobriety at the domestic level and develop a well-structured US policy. Lack of political consensus among major political parties on important foreign policy issues and the current state of confusion among government officials and ministers leading to occasional impulsive tirades -- that too, in the public eye -- are detrimental to Pakistan’s national interests and must be avoided.
The writer is a senior researcher at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies, Islamabad.