By bringing home US troops from Afghanistan, and leading NATO and allied forces out of the country, the U.S. president, Joe Biden, is acting on his campaign trail argument that American “forever wars” distract from more pressing issues at home. While the effect of the withdrawal will be felt most keenly in Afghanistan, where there are justifiable fears that the Taliban are poised to reclaim power, the broader question Mr. Biden poses is for neighbouring nuclear-armed Pakistan and the role that it wants to play in the region.
Bluntly, there is little trust between Washington and Islamabad despite Pakistan being a frontline state in America’s longest war. Mr. Biden served as vice-president to Barack Obama, who in his memoir, A Promised Land, wrote that he had preferred not to involve Pakistan in the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in 2011 because it was an “open secret” that elements inside Pakistan’s military, and especially its intelligence services, “maintained links to the Taliban and perhaps even al-Qaida, sometimes using them as strategic assets to ensure that the Afghan government remained weak and unable to align itself with Pakistan’s number one rival, India.”
In Pakistan’s defence, it might be said that the past is another country. It says that it no longer provides any haven for terrorists or seeks to radicalise Muslim opinion with which it has influence. Pakistan has undoubtedly been the victim of terror attacks and shelters millions of refugees. Yet there was no disguising the anger of the Biden administration when, after eight days in office, Pakistan’s supreme court ordered the release of the man convicted in 2002 of orchestrating the abduction and killing of Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter.
Pakistan is an army with a country attached. Imran Khan serves as prime minister. But it is the chief of army staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who calls most of the shots. The general has had a phone call from Mr. Biden’s secretary of defence. After it, the army chief pledged to “bury the past” with India. Mr. Khan has yet to be rung up by the White House. That may be because Washington had wanted to pressure Pakistan into granting the CIA a base in the country to launch drone strikes against the Taliban. The U.S. was kicked out of its last Pakistani facility in 2011. Last month, Mr. Khan wrote an op-ed quashing the idea that the US could regain a military foothold in the country.
The ever-growing risks of a Taliban takeover will shape the region’s dynamics. Not least because decades ago they subjected the country to a reign of pious Sunni terror. Adjoining Iran sponsored an armed resistance. A Taliban regime in Kabul gave Pakistan the idea that it could control Afghanistan and acquire the “strategic depth” needed to challenge India. Since then, China has drawn closer to Islamabad. New Delhi, faced with a hostile Beijing, has attempted to improve relations with Pakistan. Mr. Biden knows that Afghanistan is known as a “graveyard of empires” for good reason. He wants his foreign policy to mark a break with the past and face the challenges of the future. But turning points only work out if one knows where to turn.