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Be careful what you wish for. Uncle Biden desired a swift American withdrawal from Afghanistan, but the process is anything but orderly. Pakistan sought a friendly regime in Afghanistan, but Taliban are already proving intractable. The Ghani government in Kabul wanted its security forces to step up, but the loss of one provincial capital after another, and reliance on warlords now, paint a gloomy outlook. Taliban’s rapid march is feeding global headlines, and pressure is mounting on key stakeholders in this game.

As security situation worsens in Afghanistan amid August-end deadline for full US withdrawal, observers in Pakistan are worried about negative fallout on US-Pak bilateral relationship, and by extension, Pakistan’s economic ties with the West in general. This is mainly because of a narrative being pushed in the global media that Taliban wouldn’t have gained so much territory if it weren’t for Pakistan’s support. While an insurgency requires multiple factors to succeed, the “sanctuary” element is being singled out by Pakistan’s rivals, as seen during the recent UN Security Council meeting held under India’s presidency.

The US-Pak bilateral relationship has been testy for more than a decade now, ever since the OBL raid that shattered the trust. Nobody expects a sudden breakthrough, least of all in a situation when America is leaving Kabul without a stable government and is hoping for Pakistan to do more. When Pakistan’s National Security Advisor recently visited the US, there was faint hope that the two countries might agree on a minimum common agenda on Afghanistan and give a fresh impetus to peace talks.

Time will tell if anything concrete was achieved in the parleys, but the vibes suggest that the two countries may still be at odds. Let’s see what the “extended troika” meeting throws up today. Security cooperation has remained the bedrock of this relationship, even during tense times. It is at the political level that the damage needs to be repaired. But it’s getting worse on that count, with both sides to blame. Uncle Biden won’t pick up the phone; and the jilted PM Khan won’t stop bashing American policies in public.

This situation is only going to aggravate mutual disapproval. Realpolitik dictates that efforts be made to ensure that Pakistan does not completely fall out of favor with the US-led Western bloc. A significant part of Pakistan’s export proceeds, remittances and portfolio inflows originate from the US, the UK and the EU. Besides, at multilateral forums like the IMF, FATF and IFIs, America and its close allies hold much sway. China’s support is key, but Beijing is fighting its own battles internationally.

There is confusion all around vis-à-vis the shape of things to come in Afghanistan, and Pakistan is no exception in lacking a coherent stance on its red lines. This fog has the potential to contribute to diplomatic misunderstandings. Whether Afghanistan succumbs to a civil war or a decisive Taliban takeover, both will impact Pakistan’s economy, politics, security, and society, in profound ways. It is time to be clear-eyed about the situation, create political consensus at home, and take a firm diplomatic stand.

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