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May 4, 2021

A hard sell in DC


May 4, 2021

After an extensive policy review, the Biden Administration has begun the process of withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan.

Pakistan had hoped that the conclusion of the endgame might alter the principal lens through which the US has viewed the region for the past two decades, and therein its relationship with Pakistan. But, despite a clearly signalled desire by Islamabad for a broadened and diversified Pak-US bilateral relationship, the Biden Administration has yet to respond positively. This has resulted in several notable omissions that have not played out well in Islamabad.

Why has the Biden Administration been distinctly reserved regarding Pakistan? There are at least three possible explanations. One: Washington continues to frame Pakistan’s utility in terms of America’s interests in Afghanistan. As the United States prepares to massively wind down operations in Afghanistan, it sees diminishing returns in further investing in its relationship with Pakistan.

Two: residual memory from the Obama administration which has carried over into the Biden Administration has negatively valenced the new administration’s view of Pakistan. That’s not to say this view is not immutable, but just that for now American officials who have spent the past twenty years trying to win an unwinnable war are okay not updating their priors.

Three: the Biden Administration’s approach towards South Asia is shaped overwhelmingly by its competition with China, which it sees as its biggest principal threat. As a consequence of this view, it believes that Pakistan has made a choice in aligning itself with China, and therefore views its own investments in Pakistan until now through a framework of sunk costs.

In practice, the Biden Administration’s attention or lack thereof to Pakistan is likely influenced by some combination of all three explanations, despite Pakistan being instrumental in getting the Taliban to the negotiating table. This is vexing for Pakistan, which wants to talk about more than security, but is finding little traction with an erstwhile strategic ally.

It also begs an important question: is it still possible for both sides to still find a middle ground that is more optimal (for each) than the current status quo? Yes – but not without revisiting several prevailing assumptions influencing decision makers in both camps.

First, will Biden’s exit from Afghanistan reduce Washington’s imperative of building equity in the neighbourhood? Unlikely. If anything, US dependency on Afghanistan’s neighbours is likely to go up, not down, especially if Washington’s exit ends up ruffling feathers among Afghanistan’s many powerbrokers. Continued military and economic support to landlocked Afghanistan will require robust working arrangements with Pakistan. The US Senate has already seen the introduction of the Pakistan-Afghanistan Economic Development Act, a bipartisan bill for the setting up of Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZs) in both countries. Beyond September, Washington and Kabul will continue to need Pakistan for trade and security logistics. The US will also likely wish to avoid leaving behind a regional vacuum for other regional actors to fill, which should at least in principle reduce the appeal of forgoing strategic long-term investments with Pakistan.

Second, is the relationship’s likelihood of being negatively affected by 2011’s cynicism an inevitability? No. Even under the Obama administration, when relations between the two countries were difficult, Islamabad and Washington still worked closely together to eliminate high-ranking Al-Qaeda leaders and target terrorists operating on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border. Pakistan demonstrated its commitment to the war in Afghanistan by eventually reopening ground lines of communication for Nato forces despite political and public grievances after America’s egregious attack on Salala. And both sides worked in tandem on a robust bilateral Strategic Dialogue, which the then secretary of state John Kerry co-chaired. This was not inconsequential: a decade on, America is still Pakistan’s biggest trading partner and leading long-term investor. In other words, institutional memory of engagement can still carry over into strategic trust with Biden.

Third – and this is important – can Pakistan change foreign policy avatars from geo-politics to geo-economics overnight (and coerce the same in an unwilling partner)? Not really. Changing the foundations of a sizable bilateral relationship requires a significant build-up of time, tolerance and trust in an alternative future that has buy-in from both sides. That’s not to say the US can’t over the next five years be enticed by a diversified and equitable bilateral relationship, but simply that it will be unlikely to make those investments now if it feels its principal interests are misaligned with Islamabad’s. This view is likely to remain, furthermore, until Pakistan considerably improves its own investment climate, and in the process starts identifying specific projects for America’s private sector to invest in. As Mosharraf Zaidi has observed in these pages, Pakistan is at least a quarter century behind in its story of economic growth. Pivoting on geoeconomics can be aided by improving the country’s growth rate, not the other way around.

Fourth, is Washington correct in seeing Pakistan as aligned with China? Yes and no. It is correct insofar as the China-Pakistan relationship is more strategically and economically ambitious than it has ever been in its history. But it is incorrect in that few stakeholders in Islamabad or Rawalpindi actually believe that unipolar alignment can pass as doctrine, and that Pakistan’s national interest is best served by multipolar engagement in an international ecosystem beset by global challenges.

This year, Pakistan hosted navies from 45 countries, including the United States, China and Russia, for joint military exercises, the first time in a decade that Russian naval ships have attended drills with multiple Nato members. Be it China vs the US, or Iran vs KSA, policymakers in Islamabad, through a decade of hard conditioning, have understood the necessity of balancing disparate interests. And it would work to both Islamabad and Washington’s advantage if America’s interest in regional connectivity benefited from the transit-corridor infrastructure being established with China.

Fifth, can Pakistan accrue the dividends of geo-economic opportunity without undertaking meaningful reform in the areas of human rights and democracy at home? This is a hard no. A Biden Administration is unlikely to be enticed into a purely bilateral Pakistan-US relationship unless Pakistan can independently and unambiguously make a stronger case for democratic pluralism, media freedoms and minority protections. While Pakistan has come a long way in recent years, the recent fracas with the TLP points to the extremist challenge at home that still needs to be overcome.

Finally, it will be a difficult pill to swallow, but the US (at least in public) will always hold democratic consolidation and human rights in Pakistan to a higher standard relative to the rest of the neighbourhood. Pakistan can aspire to India’s get-out-of-jail-free card, but competitive dynamics in the Indo-Pacific theatre mean that Washington will continue to use different yardsticks for democracy and rights in India and Pakistan, for the next decade at least.

In sum, observers in both countries should not view the Biden Administration’s lack of appetite for a better Pak-US relationship as set in stone. But it will take considerable work by the government in Islamabad and essential reappraisals by Biden and Co in Washington to be convinced that investing in an expanded partnership is the right choice.

The writer is a PhD candidate at Yale.

Twitter: @fahdhumayun