Biden’s Rushed Afghan Exit Adds Strains to U.S.-Pakistan Ties
(Bloomberg) -- Joe Biden’s hopes of keeping the Afghan Taliban in check will rely heavily on Pakistan, a neighboring nation that has close ties to the militant group but which has often proven an unreliable partner to the U.S.
Islamabad has long tried to balance its relationship with the U.S. and its support for the Taliban, stoking frustration in Washington and a sense now that the militant group’s triumph has a lot to do with its base of support in Pakistan.
“Americans believe Pakistan’s support for the Taliban over 20 years was the main reason” for the U.S.’s failure, said Husain Haqqani, who served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2008 to 2011. “U.S.- Pakistan relations are in for a rough ride.”
Pakistan remains an indispensable power in the region and even if the Taliban weren’t ruling next door, the U.S. would want to maintain a foothold in the country to keep China’s influence in check and ensure Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal is secure. That will be even more critical after American troops wrap up their Afghan withdrawal on Aug. 31.
Bin Laden Refuge
The U.S. and Pakistan were never closer than after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, when the U.S. turned to Afghanistan’s neighbor for bases and intelligence. But the relationship hit a nadir in 2011, when U.S. special forces killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the city of Abbottabad, not far from a key Pakistani military base.
Many U.S. officials assume bin Laden’s presence was at least known by some in the Pakistani government, military and intelligence services, a charge officials there rejected. But the bitterness and distrust caused by that event still linger on both sides.
Now, more than half a year into his presidency, Biden still hasn’t called Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.
“I keep hearing that President Biden hasn’t called me. It’s his business,” Khan told journalists this month. “It’s not like I am waiting for any phone call.”
Pakistani officials have complained over the years that the Americans have simultaneously wanted them to use their influence on the Afghan Taliban to help reach a political settlement while also cracking down on the group. Pakistan also has a large Pashtun population, the dominant ethnic group of Taliban leaders, complicating the politics of meeting U.S. demands.
Leaving out Pakistan’s historic support for the Taliban, particularly from the country’s security services, Khan said the militant group’s success in retaking Afghanistan was probably inevitable and urged the world to work with them as a new government gets formed. The 300,000-strong Afghan security forces, equipped with sophisticated American weapons, couldn’t withstand 70,000 Taliban fighters because “no one fights for a corrupt government,” he said. “Let’s help them if the Taliban want to establish peace.”
Despite the tensions, both sides still need each other.
For starters, “our intelligence-gathering ability in Afghanistan isn’t what it used to be,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Aug. 20 when asked about the U.S.’s ability to track terrorists in the country as troops withdraw. Pakistan can help fill that gap, better than other neighboring nations.
Another key incentive is China. The U.S.’s biggest strategic rival maintains close ties with Islamabad and stands to gain from America’s withdrawal from the region.
Pakistan is a crucial part and original participant in China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. Beijing and Islamabad signed $11 billion in projects last year alone. Close relations with Pakistan also provide China with leverage in its strained relationship with India.
Khurram Schezad, chief executive officer at Karachi-based advisory Alpha Beta Core Solutions Pvt, said Islamabad needs to keep its options open, even as its long-standing political and economic ties with Beijing continue to deepen.
“China is a large trading partner for Pakistan but so is the U.S.” Schezad said. “We should keep diversification rather than concentrating risk with one specific nation.”
China-Pakistan trade totaled about $15 billion last year, more than double the $6.5 billion between Pakistan and the U.S., according to International Monetary Fund import data compiled by Bloomberg.
Investors are still cautious about the developing situation. While the stock market has seen little impact from the Taliban takeover, Pakistan bonds were the worst performers among emerging-market peers when the militant group took Kabul, according to a Bloomberg index, a reflection of the possibility that the country will face a backlash for its role supporting the Taliban.
If that happens, it would add to the economic troubles facing Pakistan, which is dependent on a $6 billion International Monetary Fund program.
Pakistan also faces its own terrorist threats for which security and intelligence cooperation with the U.S. could prove useful. The Pakistani Taliban have been blamed for 70,000 deaths of civilians in the country since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
The group has carried out multiple terrorist attacks in the country in recent years, including a car bomb explosion at a luxury hotel hosting the Chinese ambassador in the Pakistani city of Quetta this year. In 2014, the organization assaulted a school, leaving 145 dead -- mainly children.
Now, Pakistan is worried about terrorist attacks from across its border after militants were released from Afghan jails.
“The Taliban’s Pakistan faction was using Afghan soil against Pakistan,” Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said in a news conference this week. “Our concerns are genuine, and our expectations are also natural. We don’t want to see Afghanistan become a safe haven for any terrorist outfit.”
Qureshi has urged a political accommodation with the Taliban during visits to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran to discuss the evolving situation. He argues that peace in Afghanistan would bring stability to the region and promote trade.
Hard to Forget
Besides Pakistan’s history hosting bin Laden, Americans will find it hard to forget that Pakistan gave the Taliban in Afghanistan the opportunity to rebuild and regroup after the U.S. invasion.
“No U.S. administration in the last 20 years was able to end the Pakistani sanctuary the Taliban enjoyed,” said Lisa Curtis, former senior director for South and Central Asia on the National Security Council under President Donald Trump. “So long as the Taliban could fall back safely to Pakistan and the Pakistani military allowed them to freely cross back and forth across the border, the Taliban were never going to lose the stamina, will, and resources to fight.”
Trump cut back on military assistance to Pakistan in 2018, wary that U.S. taxpayer dollars were being used to fund America’s enemies.
Yet for all the problems, neither America nor Pakistan seems capable of extricating itself from their awkward relationship.
The U.S. “looks at the region and says we have a potentially festering terrorism sanctuary in Afghanistan we need to deal with,” said Richard Fontaine, chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security who was an adviser to the late Republican Senator John McCain. “They’re going to need regional partners, and Pakistan is going to be one of those.”
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