Biden’s Administration, Pakistan and Afghan peace

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Col Muhammad Hanif (R)

PRESIDENT Biden’s Administration has recently taken over the responsibility to  govern the US. Like the Trump Administration, the Afghan peace is one of the top agenda points of the Biden Administration. In this regard, Biden-appointed new US Defence Secretary General ® Lyod Austin and the Foreign Secretary, Antony Blinken, have given statements, which contain some encouraging signals on the future US relations with Pakistan and how they intend to achieve a durable peace in Afghanistan by carrying forward the Trump era peace deal with the Afghan Taliban, which was signed in February 2020. The views of Mr. Biden and his team are given. In the former Obama Administration, while the security establishment and the Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, had favoured military surge and long stay in Afghanistan to contain the Taliban, it was the then Vice President Biden, who wanted the US to minimize the US involvement and get out as soon as possible, and invoked the lessons of the Vietnam War. Now, it seems, President Biden has thoughtfully picked a national security team to have his way on troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The retention of Zalmay Khalidzad as the Special US representative for negotiations with the Taliban and facilitate the intra-Afghan dialogue is another indicator that the Biden Administration wants an early intra-Afghan peace agreement with a view to withdrawing all the US troops from Afghanistan. In this context, the new Secretary of State Antony Blinken, during his confirmation hearing at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 19 January 2021, also resolved to end the US military involvement in Afghanistan. Blinken said, “We want to end this so-called forever war. We want to bring our forces home. We want to retain some capacity to deal with any resurgence of terrorism”.

As part of above stated thinking, the US officials have announced that they are going to review the Doha Agreement. Perhaps, the review of the Doha Pact will examine the secret understandings reached between the US special representative Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban interlocutors at Doha, with Pakistan as the sole witness-cum-facilitator. It appears while reviewing the Doha Agreement, the new US Administration may ask for enhancing the withdrawal time beyond May 2021 dead line, maybe for about six months. The US also might seek an agreement from the Taliban to allow a limited number of troops to stay in Afghanistan for one to two years to discourage the violence till the intra-Afghan dialogue results into a durable political settlement. In this regard, it also seems that the Biden Administration thinks it necessary to sideline the Afghan President Ghani by installing an interim government in Afghanistan. This is indicated by the fact that the White House new National Security Adviser Jack Sullivan spoke on telephone to his Afghan counterpart Hamdullah Mohib to tell him about reviewing the Doha Pact by sidestepping Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to convey this important message, and to avoid any expression of support for the Ghani government. Sidelining Ghani is important, as he has either been unable or unwilling to discourage the negative role of the regional spoilers, like India, to fail the intra-Afghan dialogue.

In view of the above, to ensure the success of the intra-Afghan dialogue, it is necessary that as Trump Administration and Pakistan were closely working together, the Biden Administration and Pakistan also work the same way. For this, Biden’s previous good relations with Pakistan and the statements of new Defence Secretary, Lloyd Austin are encouraging. During his recent confirmation hearing, Austin said, “Pakistan is an essential partner in any peace process in Afghanistan. Pakistan will play an important role in any political settlement in Afghanistan”. To build good relations with the Biden Administration and closely work with it to make the intra-Afghan dialogue a success, Pakistani Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi has stated, “Pakistan hopes for greater engagement with the new US government. The Biden government should follow up on the Afghan peace process and US troop withdrawal, as there is an opportunity to succeed. He added, “Pakistan has done a lot, we have really bent backwards to create an environment to facilitate the peace process. Pakistan’s interests and vision are in line with the priorities of the new US Administration and that convergence can be built further.”

To reset Pakistan’s relations with the US, the recent statement of Moeed Yousuf, the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister Imran Khan on National Security and Strategic Planning, that Pakistan-US should build an economic partnership and that Pakistan was ready to act as a bridge to facilitate resetting of the US-China relations is also very significant. In view of the above discussion, it appears that Biden Administration is well poised to see the intra-Afghan dialogue a success, and for that they need and value the cooperation of Pakistan. In this context, it is also important to convince the Biden team that Pakistan-US relations are significant for protecting the US interests in Afghanistan, to discourage the spread of terrorism in Afghanistan, Central Asia and to maintain peace in the Middle East, and for facilitating good working relations between the US and China. Therefore, it is necessary that Pakistan and the US should build an enduring political, economic and security partnership and closely cooperate in making the intra-Afghan dialogue a success. In this context, Pakistan should take the Biden Administration into confidence that any military and intelligence imprint of India in Afghanistan will nurture instability in the region.
—The writer is an ex-research fellow of IPRI and senior research fellow of SVI, Islamabad.