Zahid Hussain Published June 2, 2021
WITH the last of the American soldiers packing to leave Afghanistan, post-9/11 US-Pakistan relations have come full circle. Originally touted as a strategic alliance, it morphed into a transactional one over the years. With American forces leaving Afghanistan, there is now a move to reset the alignment. There is, however, no indication yet of the relationship moving away from the Afghan pivot.
While the foreign policy priorities of the Biden administration are more or less defined, there is no likelihood of any major shift in its policy towards Pakistan. For the past several years, Washington has seen Pakistan purely from the Afghan prism and there is no indication that the Biden administration will be deviating from that policy approach.
Relations are likely to remain largely transactional with some convergence of interest between the two in the Afghan peace process. Pakistan’s support remains critical for America’s exit from Afghanistan and to bring to an end the two-decade-long war in the region. Fast-changing regional geopolitics including Pakistan’s growing strategic nexus with China may also cast a shadow over the Biden administration’s policy towards Islamabad.
There is no likelihood of any major shift in American policy towards Pakistan.
It has been six months since the Biden administration took over, but there has not been any contact between the two erstwhile allies at the highest level. Except for a few telephonic conversations between senior American officials and the Pakistani civil and military leadership that largely revolved around Afghan conflict, there have not been any serious negotiations that could define the framework of the future course of bilateral ties.
Lot of importance has been attached to the recent meeting between US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his Pakistani counterpart Moeed Yusuf in Geneva. It was the first face-to-face high-level official contact between the two governments. The meeting was reportedly held at very short notice. Jack Sullivan was attending a conference in the Swiss city.
A short joint statement issued after the talks said: “Both sides discussed a range of bilateral, regional, and global issues of mutual interest and discussed ways to advance practical cooperation.” There is, however, no indication yet of the Biden administration willing to redefine its relationship with Pakistan beyond America’s regional security prism.
Pakistan is not only still important for the US for a smooth exit from Afghanistan but also for its post-withdrawal security plans in the region. In a recent statement, a Pentagon spokesman said that the Biden administration is in negotiations with Pakistan and other regional countries on the option of having US bases there.
Apparently, the US wants a presence in the region as part of its efforts to counter the global terrorist groups making Afghanistan the centre of their activities after the withdrawal of foreign forces. Washington also wants Pakistan to continue providing the US overflight access to Afghanistan after the troops’ withdrawal. Surely after entering into an alliance with the US after 9/11 Pakistan did allow the use of its airbases for US planes in the invasion of Afghanistan. But those were closed down several years ago.
Pakistan has also provided ground and air lines of communication for supplies to Nato forces operating in Afghanistan. But they were closed for the supply of weapons. Pakistani officials have denied that any negotiation on military bases is being held with Washington. But the controversy over the issue refuses to die.
It remains unclear whether or not US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin raised the issue of bases in his last telephonic conversation with army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa. The US officials would not comment on whether any serious negotiations on a ‘possible basing agreement’ is underway.
But it is very clear that the US wants to ‘stay in the game’ in Afghanistan and sees a role for Pakistan in this game. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a recent interview to BBC declared that it was in Pakistan’s own interest to do so. He made it very clear that the US was only withdrawing its troops from the country and was not leaving Afghanistan.
This makes Pakistan’s predicament more serious. The Afghan endgame remains tricky with the postponement of the peace conference in Istanbul after the Afghan Taliban’s refusal to attend it. This has jeopardised the possibility of the Afghan government and the insurgent group reaching an agreement on the future political set-up in Afghanistan before the American withdrawal. The situation has become more complicated with the insurgents continuing their military offensive as the US is expected to complete the withdrawal of forces by July 4, weeks before the Sept 11 deadline.
Inevitably, the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan will have a huge impact on regional geopolitics. The country’s strategic location has historically made it vulnerable to the involvement of outside powers and proxy battles.
A major concern has been that the American military withdrawal could lead Afghanistan to further descend into chaos fuelling a full-scale civil war with India, Russia and Iran backing different factions and dragging Pakistan into a protracted conflict. The spillover effects of spiralling instability and conflict in Afghanistan could be disastrous.
Meanwhile, changing regional geopolitics have created a new alignment of forces. The growing strategic alliance between the US and India and the China-Pakistan axis reflect these emerging geopolitics. Pakistan needs to tread a cautious path as it seeks to reset its relations with the United States.
Surely we must cooperate with the US in achieving peace in Afghanistan but it’s not in our interest to become part of any new US ‘game’ in the region. The use of Pakistani soil for America’s post-withdrawal counter-insurgency strategy could suck the country into yet another conflict.
We certainly need to have a broad-based relationship with the US but should not get pulled into any new ‘game’ on America’s behalf. The resetting of our relationship with America will certainly not be easy. We need to be extremely clear about our interests and priorities when negotiating the terms of the relationship.
The writer is the author of No-Win War — The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow.
Published in Dawn, June 2nd, 2021