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A bill moved in US Senate, to pave way for sanctions on Taliban and their supporters, weighed heavy on sentiments of Pakistani businesses last week. Among other things, the bill, titled “Afghanistan Counterterrorism, Oversight, and Accountability Act of 2021,” seeks “an assessment of support by state and non-state actors, including the Government of Pakistan” for the Taliban since 2001.

The said bill’s language suggests that the scope of sanctions will be restricted to individuals, and not extend to a state. The likely penalties against targeted individuals involve assets freeze (blocking their property within the US) and travel ban (making them ineligible to enter the US). So, until the US persuades its allies to do the same, those restrictions will just apply to assets within and travel to the US.

Considering the uptick in anti-Pakistan commentary in Western media post Kabul’s fall to the Taliban, this development isn’t exactly encouraging. It may spell the start of mutual recriminations that end up harming Pakistan’s interests more than America’s. It’s not ideal to have US-Pak relations head in such a direction – however, the gloom-and-doom scenario being painted around also seems a bit unwarranted.

The fear and loathing that was on display among suspecting minds last week has already been amply debunked by longtime watchers of US-Pak ties. The context is that President Biden is not getting any legislative support from his rivals at the Capitol, who are actively blocking his agenda and now threaten a debt default in two weeks. In that backdrop, the fact that some two dozen Republicans moved the said bill, with no Democratic signatories, doesn't bode well for it to become a law.

Besides, even if this Republican-sponsored bill passes in the Senate, it has to sail through the House of Representatives before being signed by the President. And the President can potentially veto it citing national security priorities. Additionally, on a technical level, even if the bill passes, it calls for an evaluation of role of Pakistanis in assisting Taliban – it doesn’t call for outright sanctions. Another possibility is that there can be the loophole of annual waivers on potential sanctions approved thereof.

Having said that, the bill needs to be acknowledged for what it is – it is a tool to do some cage-rattling, as Pakistan already feels it is under the radar of global community. It provides the Biden administration with some leverage to seek Islamabad’s support in fulfilling American objectives in Afghanistan and the region. With Pakistan’s pivot towards economic diplomacy with the US withering on the vine, the likelihood of any positive reinforcement coming through from DC is almost negligible.

The two countries have limited but shared counter-terrorism and humanitarian objectives in Afghanistan. Pakistan has repeatedly shown its willingness to work with the US and other Western stakeholders to help stabilize Afghanistan. (It will help if the PM wrote his mocking op-eds less often). It is hoped that the visit of top US State Department officials this week will provide the two countries with an opportunity to forge a mutual agreement on the way forward. It is time for a re-set.

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