Well worth a look: Biden & Washington’s perennial Pakistan problem

The Pakistani army in south Waziristan.

Tired narratives have constrained the US – Pakistan relationship for too long it’s time for a rethink

By Richard Olson

Among the many challenges facing the Biden administration will be addressing the infamously dysfunctional U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Anyone familiar with how Islamabad and Washington have interacted over the last 74 years will resort to tired metaphors: a roller-coaster ride, a sine wave, the dynamic between an overbearing mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law.

These clichés reflect the reality that the relationship has rarely been stable and usually is either declining precipitously or accelerating unsustainably. The challenge for the new administration will be to find a way to work productively with Pakistan without oscillating between peaks of enthusiasm and depths of cynicism.

Much will depend on the framing of the relationship. The essential reason for the volatility in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is that it has always been dominated by what diplomats call “external” foreign policy considerations: during the Cold War it was about confronting communism; since 9/11, about countering terrorism and supporting the war in Afghanistan.

For Pakistan it has mostly been about its perennial rivalry and occasional confrontation with India. These disconnected strategic visions might have been manageable had there been a strong underlying economic or cultural partnership, but that has not been the case. And both sides have tended to benefit, at least in the short-term, by focusing on the narrow overlap of geopolitical interests.

For the moment, the relationship is still largely framed in terms of Afghanistan, especially as Washington has entered the endgame of its military involvement. Over the medium term, China is likely to define the bilateral relationship. The big question is whether and how Pakistan fits into the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy. Will Pakistan be seen simply as a spoiler and a potential rival in the new great game with China?

Afghanistan endgame

While the Biden administration has not fully formulated its Afghanistan policy, it has signaled that it will support the ongoing peace process perhaps with a greater emphasis on preserving the gains of the past two decades. But it is unlikely that the new team will entirely reverse the commitment to withdrawal of U.S. forces that is at the core of the U.S.-Taliban agreement. While the Afghan endgame may be protracted, it is underway, meaning that eventually the relationship will be reframed

Pakistan will still have an important role to play both in obtaining a political settlement, as well as in its implementation. If the Biden administration seeks to delay the May 2021 deadline for final and complete withdrawal of U.S. forces, it will need Pakistan’s help in selling that concept to the Taliban, as the bipartisan Afghanistan Study Group recommends. If the United States insists on reductions in violence and political concessions by the Taliban at the Doha negotiations, also as called for by the Afghanistan Study Group, then Pakistan will also be essential.

If negotiations break down, the United States will be faced with the choice of unilaterally disengaging from Afghanistan or maintaining its military presence in the face of renewed Taliban opposition. In either case, Pakistan will be critical. In the case of withdrawal, the United States will look to assure that its counter terrorism requirements are still met, which will at a minimum require the use of Pakistani airspace.

In the case of ongoing war, it will need that same airspace to supply its forces and provide the air support that is vital for regime survival. Either way, Pakistan will have some leverage over the United States as it has since 2001. However much Washington might wish to quickly disengage from its fraught relationship with Pakistan, it will be difficult to do so until a comprehensive political settlement to the Afghan conflict has been reached and at least partially implemented.

But the United States will not pay a high premium for Pakistani cooperation (which is seen as achieving both Pakistani and U.S. objectives), and the post-9/11 multi-billion dollar blandishments are unlikely to return. Washington believes it got little result from those investments and in an era of pandemic there are now higher funding priorities.

Indo-Pacific strategy

However, the Afghanistan endgame develops, the larger framework for U.S. relations with South Asia will be shaped by the Indo-Pacific strategy. While conceived by the Trump administration, Indo-Pacific strategy is likely to continue in some form, as the appointment of Kurt Campbell as Indo-Pacific coordinator at the National Security Council suggests.

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