Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Joe Biden in a combined photo. US-Pakistan ties are in limbo. Image: Twitter

PESHAWAR – When Joe Biden assumed the US presidency in January, many in Pakistan hoped for a bilateral reset. Three months on, there is no such rapprochement in sight as the new administration in Washington delivers perceived snubs rather than engaged olive branches to Islamabad.

Officials claim the US has ignored Pakistan’s hopeful outreach, despite the critical role Islamabad has played in persuading the Taliban to negotiate with the US in a peace process that appears to be headed towards a settlement in neighboring Afghanistan.

Despite that crucial initiative, one that aims to end America’s so-called “endless war”, President Biden has not personally spoken to Prime Minister Imran Khan since the former assumed power, according to Pakistani officials familiar with the situation.

That, they say, is likely because Washington thinks Islamabad is pushing China and Russia’s agendas at the expense of US interests in Afghanistan. Washington also knows Pakistan is well-placed to manipulate the formation of a future Afghan government by dint of its proximity and connection to the Taliban.     

Washington, some in Islamabad believe, is expressing that displeasure through not-so-veiled diplomatic sleights. For instance, Biden’s Special Envoy for Climate Change, John Kerry, visited India and Bangladesh last month but eschewed a stopover in Pakistan.  

Similarly, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited India and Afghanistan on March but opted not to land in Pakistan. Instead, the US defense chief spoke with Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa over the phone while he was in Kabul.

Islamabad has not yet publicly conveyed its reservations about the Biden administration’s perceived snubs, but senior officials admit privately that they feel the gestures have been deliberate and not mere diplomatic oversight.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan delivers a speech during the Refugee Summit Islamabad to mark 40 years of hosting Afghan refugees, in Islamabad, February 17, 2020. Photo: AFP/Aamir Qureshi

Pakistani officials quoted in news reports think that the Supreme Court’s acquittal of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh and three associates who allegedly kidnapped and decapitated Wall Street Journal bureau chief Daniel Pearl back in 2002 put relations with Biden on the wrong foot.

The court released Sheikh just as Biden was taking his oath of his office in January. Washington has reportedly asked Islamabad to review its legal options after the ruling and has apparently suggested allowing for the US to prosecute the suspects to secure justice for Pearl’s family if for political reasons it is unable to do so in Pakistan. 

There is also lingering distrust over Osama Bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader responsible for the 9/11 attacks on the US who resided quietly in a Pakistan hill-station compound situated suspiciously near a military containment area. In May 2011, the US famously sent commandos into Pakistan without Islamabad’s foreknowledge to assassinate the terror leader.

In his recent book “A Promised Land”, former US president Barack Obama claimed that he preferred not to involve Pakistan in the raid because it was an “open secret” that elements inside Pakistan’s military, and especially its intelligence services, maintained links to the Taliban and likely by association al-Qaeda.

Pakistan, he wrote, sometimes used them as “strategic assets” against Afghanistan and India.

Fast forward to the present, the new US administration likely wants Islamabad to demonstrate it is not a pliant proxy of China. That’s easier said than done in light of Beijing’s US$60 billion commitment to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a key, strategic spoke of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Mushahid Hussain Syed, a Pakistani politician, analyst and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) Senator, told Asia Times that there was a perceived lack of sensitivity and gratitude on the part of the US for what Pakistan has and is doing to “pull the American chestnuts out of the fire on Afghanistan.”

“While Pakistan is pressing the ‘right buttons’ on FATF, India, Afghanistan and terrorism issues, which the US considers key irritants, they still seem to view Pakistan through the prism of the emerging Cold War. They are aligning with India to contain the Chinese influence in the region, which is going to backfire. The US should have rather built bridges with Islamabad that strived to bail out Washington from its latest defeat in yet another land war in Asia,” Syed said.  

A mountain pass along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Image: Facebook

Symbolically, Biden did not invite Khan to his government’s first virtual summit on climate change held on April 22-23. The US president invited 40 heads of state and government, including leaders of India, Bangladesh and Bhutan from the South Asian region, but sent a belated invitation to a low-profile functionary who serves as Khan’s special assistant on climate change.

Khan, who is touting his own “billion trees” environmental initiative, perceived the diplomatic snub, Pakistani officials claim.

While China’s economic influence looms large, Pakistan still needs Washington’s support, both to sustain disbursements of its $6 billion bailout package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and to be removed from the terror-financing and money-laundering watchdog Financial Action Task Force’s “grey list”, a designation that hinders Islamabad’s participation in global financial markets.  

If Biden could influence either organization’s decision-making in Pakistan’s favor, he hasn’t done so yet. The IMF has so far released two tranches of $450 million each of an Extended Fund Facility program initiated in 2019, but delayed a second review meeting and the release of a third tranche last month without letting Pakistani officials know in advance.

Similarly, the FATF kept Pakistan on its grey list in February because “Pakistan must improve its investigations and prosecutions of all groups and entities financing terrorists and their associates and show that penalties imposed by courts are effective.” The next FATF plenary review of Pakistan’s status is due in June this year.

Khan’s government thinks the best way to reset with the US is through economics rather than security. In early March, Khan formed “an apex committee” under the chairmanship of Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi to develop an all-inclusive agenda for re-engagement with the new US administration.

The committee was specifically tasked to work on economic and industrial ventures that could be put forward to Biden’s policy team for possible economic collaboration.

The proposals under consideration include so-called “Reconstruction Opportunity Zones” (ROZs), an initiative first broached by the George W Bush administration in 2006 in return for Islamabad’s support for the US “war on terror” in neighboring Afghanistan, where al Qaeda was then known to maintain bases.

Then-Vice President Joe Biden (left) sits in front of a Pakistani flag at the United Nations on September 26, 2014 in New York City. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images via AFP

The committee has also proposed the formation of a US-Pakistan Economic Zone at Karachi’s port to re-process industrial goods at concessional rates for export to US markets. The apex committee’s work has so far remained confined to working papers in the absence of an opportunity for Khan to engage personally with Biden’s team.  

Mushahid opined that the new US administration seems confused about Pakistan’s role in the Afghanistan peace process, a communication breakdown that could fatally hinder ties.  

“The only clarity seems to be a readiness to scapegoat Pakistan if and when things go wrong in Afghanistan,” said Syed, “while conjuring up the ‘China threat’ to justify their bloated military budgets.”