Contrary to expectations, Pakistan seems to have gotten off to a wrong start with the Biden administration. It is the ghosts of the past that continue to linger, jeopardizing a fresh start. The timing and manner in which the main accused in the gruesome 2002 murder of US journalist Daniel Pearl was recently released by the courts gives an impression that the state is inclined to play hardball with the new administration. But should this be read as simply a bad move, or a reaction to hardening tone in DC?
Be that as it may, the damaging move has already defined the early interaction. The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has taken up the matter with Pakistan Foreign Minister in rather strong terms during the customary first call. The readout of that call is sharply different in tone from the positive things Blinken had to say to his counterparts in Pakistan’s neighbors India and Afghanistan. This is not the start Pakistan should have wanted. The tone that is set early on is usually harder to shake off.
Since 9/11, successive US administrations have viewed their relationship with Pakistan through the lens of the war in Afghanistan. It is no different under Biden, whose foreign policy and national security team consists of Obama administration veterans. Folks like Secretary Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan seem to have a rather clear idea of where their policies fell short the last time around, including in South Asia. This is bound to pose fresh challenges for Pakistan, as the slate is not clean.
It is apparent that the Biden administration’s decision to review the US-Taliban peace deal, in which Pakistan had played a part, has caused alarm in Pakistan. What Secretary Blinken laid out last week as the US priorities in Afghanistan – “continuing to protect the U.S. against the threat of terrorism, achieving a just and durable political settlement there, and cementing a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire” – should leave little doubt that America is now not in a hurry to leave Afghanistan by the May deadline.
If US and Pakistan continued to drift apart over the Afghanistan conundrum, with sprinklings of irritants here and there, both sides have something to lose. Biden may have no appetite for a surge in Afghanistan, but a hawkish stance will necessitate higher troop presence. Meanwhile, Pakistan is already susceptible to pressure on matters related to its fate at global bodies like FATF and the IMF. Add to it the White House now holding foreign regimes to task for violations of democratic norms and human rights.
Hardly anyone expected a breakthrough in US-Pak relationship anytime soon, what with the diminished nature of this relationship and the ongoing pandemic consuming the Biden team’s energies at home. Peace in Afghanistan is about the only thematic area where the on-again, off-again bilateral relationship can make common cause. But playing hardball with each other will set the progress back.