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

A US Senate bill tabled to assess Pakistan’s “dual” role in the Taliban’s lightning takeover in Afghanistan has Pakistan-US ties hanging in a new delicate balance. Even if the bill which could result in punitive sanctions is not passed, relations will remain mired in uncertainty, mistrust and contention for the foreseeable future.

Bilateral ties have deteriorated despite the fact the instrumental role Pakistan played in facilitating the US-NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in August.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed that the US continues to “scapegoat” Pakistan for its own failures in prosecuting the “war on terror.” He wrote that Pakistan’s collaboration with the US from 2006-15 resulted in 16,000 terrorist attacks on the Pakistani state, 80,000 casualties and US$150 billion in economic losses.  

Khan’s assertion, of course, overlooks the long-time double game Pakistan has played with the US, including in providing sanctuary to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. More recently Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is widely believed to have provided the Taliban strategic and logistical advice as it swept to fill the vacuum left by retreating US troops.

There is also widespread speculation that thousands of Pakistani security personnel, garbed as Taliban fighters, may have helped the militant group on the ground during its final push to seize Kabul. It’s a speculation that the US Senate is expected to weigh in the weeks ahead, one that could lead to damaging new revelations.

Setting a tone, former US national security advisor H R McMaster told a US congressional hearing this week that Pakistan has “had it both ways” for too long and that the US should stop providing assistance to Islamabad in punitive response. “I think Pakistan should be confronted with its behavior over the years that has actually resulted, I think, in large measure in this outcome,” McMaster said, according to press reports.

McMaster told US lawmakers that the Taliban was backed by ISI and that’s why they recaptured Afghanistan. He also said that the US should hold Khan accountable for some of his comments after the fall of Kabul in August and that Pakistan should be confronted broadly with international isolation because of its “support for jihadist terrorists.”

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan (2nd R) attends talks with China’s President Xi Jinping (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 2, 2018. Photo: AFP / Thomas Peter / Pool

To be sure, civilian and military Pakistani leaders desire strong relations with the US. Many had hoped, so far vainly, for a bilateral reset after US President Joe Biden took power in January from the outgoing Donald Trump.  

This is one reason why Pakistan “was even comfortable in allowing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to slow down. It was supposed to send a message to Washington about Pakistan’s desire to revert to the US, but it did not work”, said a Pakistani diplomatic official, who spoke to Asia Times on condition of anonymity.

China now envisions connecting the $60 billion-plus CPEC, a key link in its wider global Belt and Road Initiative, to Afghanistan and wider Eurasia. Many in Washington believe the scheme has made Pakistan into a Chinese satellite beholden to Beijing’s aid and loans.

Prime Minister Khan tried to send the same conciliatory message to Washington by appointing a US-based analyst, Moeed Yusuf, as his national security adviser. Moeed’s task was to use his expertise to “build bridges” between Islamabad and Washington in the post-Afghanistan scenario.

But this seems highly unlikely to happen now “given the changing US narrative about Pakistan and the threat of sanctions looming large over Islamabad,” said the Pakistani official.

That threat has driven down the currency and stock market, and led to speculation the bill could undermine the government’s bid to revive a suspended loan program with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

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.

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

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.

Sirajuddin Haqqani’s FBI wanted poster before he was appointed as Afghanistan’s interior minister. Photo:

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.”