Last week, Pakistan’s foreign ministry said the proposed bill was “uncalled for and counterproductive” and claimed it included references to Pakistan that were completely unwarranted.
Even though Biden has not directly blamed Pakistan and the sanctions bill does not have strong bipartisan support, it is undeniable that there is no “serious engagement between Pakistan and the US” at this current crucial moment for the region, Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed, former chairman of the senate’s defense committee, said in an interview with Asia Times.
According to Syed, the US has almost always based its relations with Pakistan on the “doctrine of necessity.” Now that the US has already withdrawn from Afghanistan and it does not need Pakistan’s assistance to fight its war, the logic of that doctrine dictates only limited and selective engagement.
Syed added that even though the US does not need Pakistan to fight its Afghan war, Islamabad remains a “key conduit” to Kabul for the Biden administration, including as it prepares a humanitarian aid package to prevent Afghanistan from teetering towards famine. That, he said, mitigates the risk of the US imposing sanctions on Pakistan.
The upcoming visit of US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to Islamabad could present an opportunity for a breakthrough. US-Pakistan engagement and communication is “a connection that the Biden administration is unlikely to break if it aims to continue to engage with the Taliban indirectly, to make sure the US does not get hit again,” said the Pakistani diplomatic official.
At the same time, Pakistan is not the only option for Washington to engage with the Taliban. Qatar, too, remains a key player for the US. Qatar not only hosts a US military air-base, but it also helped evacuate thousands of people, including US military personnel, from Afghanistan.
In his recent visit to Qatar, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken thanked the Gulf state ruler for “Qatar’s extraordinary support in facilitating the safe transit of US citizens.”
Pakistan, on the other hand, has not been willing to provide a similar degree of support for the US, seen most vividly in Islamabad’s refusal to allow the US access to its military bases. That refusal, many in Washington believe, contributed to the US’ inability to resist the Taliban’s blitzkrieg takeover and withdrawal in a more orderly and less disastrous fashion.
“Pakistan’s own refusal to maintain a military alliance with the US post-withdrawal has yielded two consequences. On the one hand, it lent credibility to Pakistan’s continued support for the Taliban as the reason for the US failure in Pakistan. On the other hand, it weakened Pakistan’s pro-US posturing, which it started by slowing down CPEC,” according to the diplomatic official.
Blinken recently said in a congressional hearing the US needs to “reassess” the role Pakistan played in Afghanistan and the role Washington would want it to play in the future. Sherman recently remarked that reassessment includes an expectation for Pakistan to “do more” about the “all militant and terrorist groups without distinction.”
While it is not clear which specific terrorist groups the US wants Pakistan to target, a cause of concern, according to the Pakistani officials, appears to be the dominance of the al-Qaeda-linked Haqqani network in Afghanistan’s new line-up.
Its leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is interior minister in the new Taliban government, meaning the network now control’s the nation’s police, intelligence services and other security forces.
Whether Pakistan can actually pull the Taliban’s strings is a big question, particularly as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terror group ramps up attacks on Pakistani targets. Pakistan’s dilemma is that it may no longer have the same level of influence over the Taliban that Washington thinks it has, according to one Pakistani official who requested anonymity.
“Given that Washington has always seen Pakistan as the key sponsor of the Taliban, its insistence on asking Pakistan to control the Haqqanis has created a lot of complications for Islamabad,” said the Pakistani official.
“Pakistan’s failure to control the Haqqanis … will directly shape its ties with Washington, a continuous deterioration that could ultimately prompt the Biden administration to move towards sanctions,” he said.
Pakistan had long resisted US pressure to take military action against the Haqqanis. Now that the Haqqanis are in political power in Kabul, Washington’s pressure on Islamabad to control them could become a new fault line in ties, one that could keep Washington and Islamabad stuck in conflict and contention.
In his op-ed, Prime Minister Khan wrote that priority should be given to “an Afghanistan that is no longer a threat to the world, where Afghans can finally dream of peace after four decades of conflict.”
He ended his piece by underscoring where the US and Pakistan share interests, saying “the alternative – abandoning Afghanistan – has been tried before … in the 1990s, it will inevitably lead to a meltdown. Chaos, mass migration and a revived threat of international terror will be natural corollaries.”