The bilateral Washington-Islamabad relationship has mainly been dominated by strategic considerations and periodic upheavals forcing both sides to engage each other on matters of importance and mutual concern. The departure of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989 and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union marked the ending of the golden period of Pakistan–United States ties necessitated by cold war rivalry brought to the Afghan soil. The ensuing decade of relative dormancy in Pakistan-U.S. relationship was characterized by the rising tide of China’s international standing as well as India’s emergence as a new global power, at odd with Beijing with reserved prominence in U.S policy conduct. The September 11, 2001 event forced Pakistan to join the American-led coalition in Afghanistan and to allow NATO access to its supply routes, and to receive economic and military assistances in return. As the war dragged on, differences with the Obama administration on the alleged support and provision of safe havens for the Taliban and the presence of al-Qaeda figures in Pakistan surfaced, leading to a deteriorated state of relations especially after the killing of Osama Bin Laden.
The Trump administration’s Pakistan policy was characterized by two distinct phases: Strained bilateral relations for the first two years that led to the suspension of the US$1.3 billion worth of security assistance, and a lukewarm state of ties in the second half highlighted by cooperation on counter- terrorism efforts and the progress in Afghan peace process that, to some extent, strengthened other aspects of the relationship.
Biden’s rise to power and possible re-adjustment of U.S. policy towards South Asia are indeed matters of great importance to Pakistani leaders. Though the new American President may for some time remain preoccupied with formidable challenges both at home and abroad with less thoughts reserved for secondary issues such as the nature of bilateral ties with Islamabad, the already stalled Afghan Peace Process and the need for Pakistan’s leverage on Taliban shall push Biden to seek fresh round of engagement with Islamabad. Being a war skeptic member of the Obama administration and wary of “forever wars”, and notwithstanding his review order of the U.S-Taliban peace accord, it is unlikely that Biden would act much different from Donald Trump on the issues of American troop withdrawal and Taliban’s full compliance with the February 2020 Doha Peace Agreement.
The nature of Washington-New Delhi relationship is also a decisive element in possible reset of Pakistan-America ties. Pakistan has been sensitive about growing U.S-India bilateral relations since the 1990s. Democrats are seen to be prioritizing human rights considerations in foreign policy and accordingly, Pakistan expects the new American administration to take India to task for its “questionable” conducts in Kashmir. Biden administration, however, may focus more deeply on the human rights issue in Kashmir, but it is less likely it would go too far to jeopardize the United State’s relationship with India for the sake of a sidelined dispute. For the United States, China is going to be the key concern in the region, and India’s value in balancing China remains vital for Washington. America’s desire to blunt China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative and to contain its rise as a global power shall continue to confine Washington’s strategic and geopolitical interests in the Indo-Pacific region more aligned with India than Pakistan. Biden, unlike his predecessor, may tend to have more emphasis on defense ties with Pakistan and might take steps to restore America’s role as a strategic balancer between Islamabad and New Delhi.
Washington is Islamabad’s important trading partner with an annual trade volume of US$ 6.6 billion. The United States is Pakistan’s largest export destination while China is Pakistan’s largest source of imports. Pakistan, despite its strong strategic and economic attachment to China, counts on America’s help to continue its development and to keep its economy afloat. Islamabad’s heavy reliance on the continued flow of financial and development aid extended by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank and Washington’s pivotal role in the said institutions shall push Pakistan to work closely with Biden during his presidency.
Despite being allies, Pakistan and the United States have experienced decades of issue-specific and complex relations with different orientations on a number of subjects. Under Biden, not much is expected to change for Pakistan and the usual mode of "transactional relationship" driven by both side’s security needs shall shape the core of Pakistan-U.S. interaction. Biden will look to Pakistan from the Afghan lenses and may demand more Pakistani effort in order to rein in the Taliban. If the Intra-Afghan talks derail and the conflict reignites, the America-Pakistan relations shall suffer a setback. Noteworthy is that, with the strong likelihood of Biden’s continued commitment to the Doha Peace Accord leading to a major U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, for the first time in more than four decades the two countries may have to find no other option but to settle down to a bilateral relationship not driven by Afghanistan .
Hossein Ebrahim Khani, Asian and Oceania Studies
(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)