A senior US official visiting Islamabad has made clear to Pakistan that the Biden administration has downgraded the bilateral relationship.
On the eve of her arrival, the deputy secretary of state, Wendy Sherman, used a public event in Mumbai to lay out in blunt terms the new parameters of US-Pakistan relations, stressing there would be no equivalence with Washington’s deepening ties to India.
The Islamabad trip was for “a very specific and narrow purpose”, Sherman said, to talk about Afghanistan and the Taliban.
“We don’t see ourselves building a broad relationship with Pakistan, and we have no interest in returning to the days of hyphenated India-Pakistan,” she added. “That’s not where we are. That’s not where we’re going to be.”
Sherman’s reception in Pakistan the next day was stilted. A planned meeting with the prime minister, Imran Khan, never materialised. Senior Pakistan government officials told the Guardian that there was diplomatic tension between the two countries that needed to be resolved and that Khan was angry that he had still not received a phone call from Joe Biden.
However, Fawad Chaudhry, the information minister, said that the talks with Sherman had gone well. “I think she spoke very warmly in Pakistan and she has understood Pakistan’s point of view,” Chaudhry said.
Biden sets great store by his personal relations with world leaders, and in his speech marking the completion of the military withdrawal from Afghanistan on 31 August the president said the new emphasis would be on regional diplomacy. In that context, the decision not to call is intended to be an unambiguous signal of Washington’s displeasure with Khan’s attitude to Afghanistan.
Khan described the Taliban takeover as “breaking the chains of slavery”. The US wants Pakistan to maintain international solidarity in withholding recognition of the Taliban while pressing for women’s rights and other democratic principles.
The cold approach has come as a shock to Islamabad, which had been accustomed to Trump’s informal and personal relationship with Khan.
In a recent leaked memo, the foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, urged the Pakistani embassy in Washington to get a call arranged between Biden and Khan.
“In spite of the existing situation in Afghanistan, and the key role played by Pakistan, it is unfortunate that the White House remains indifferent to the Pakistani leadership,” the letter said, blaming “the immature understanding of the White House staff”.
“You are thus expected to take adequate measures, ensuring that enough diplomatic steps are taken to guarantee the strategic relevance of Pakistan in all diplomatic forums.”
The foreign minister insisted the letter was a fake but official sources said it was authentic.
Asked about the absence of a presidential phone call to Khan, the White House said it had nothing to add to non-committal remarks by the press secretary, Jen Psaki, in late September when she said she didn’t “have anything to predict at this point in time”.
Pakistan has been long accused of playing a double game in the fight against terrorism, on one hand being a supposed ally in the US “war on terror” while also supporting and sponsoring the Taliban, and allowing them to live and regroup on Pakistan soil.
Cyril Almeida, a columnist and analyst, said: “Since 9/11, the US has seen Pakistan through an Afghan prism. Now that Pakistan is perceived to have won another proxy war against a superpower in Afghanistan, the superpower appears to be in no mood to forgive or forget.”
The issue is urgent for Pakistan, which is anxious to get flows of humanitarian aid going across the border and forestall a complete collapse in Afghanistan which would lead to a huge, destabilising influx of refugees.
“Pakistan is desperate to move on from the past and let bygones be bygones and wants to broaden out its relationship and focus on geo-economics, but from Washington’s standpoint, Afghanistan is going to continue to dominate its interests in the region for the foreseeable future,” Elizabeth Threlkeld, the director of the South Asia programme at the Stimson Center, said.
Since the Taliban came into power in mid-August, Pakistan has been publicly talking about the future recognition of the Taliban government, which has close ties to Pakistan’s powerful military intelligence services, the ISI.
Last week, in an interview with the Turkish-state affiliated TRT World, Khan said the United States will “sooner or later” have to recognise the Taliban government in Afghanistan.
There is a fear among western countries and diplomats that Pakistan may recognise the Taliban new government and undermine international efforts to pressure the Taliban into making assurances about human rights, security and the freedoms of women. A report published in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, quoting the US sources, reported that the United States does not want Pakistan to recognise the Taliban regime before the rest of the international community.
Almeida said it has not helped that, since the collapse of the Afghan government and the takeover by the Taliban, Pakistan has been seen to be earnestly pleading the group’s case to the world as well as making it very public that it is playing a role in helping establish the new Taliban cabinet.
Zahid Hussain, the author of No-Win War: the Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow, said that relations were at their lowest ebb. “There is lack of hope that the relations will get better, as the things are not moving towards rapprochement between both countries. Today, we don’t see the strategic relations between the US-Pakistan – it is only a transactional relation now,” he said.
In contrast to the Trump administration, the Biden administration has been more focused on promoting democracy and human rights globally and many believe that Biden will eventually press the Pakistan premier on the human rights abuses and censorship of the media that have become rampant in Pakistan.
A US state department report published in 2021 had a detailed and damning chapter on the human rights violations in Pakistan. The chapter portrayed a bleak situation in Pakistan in terms of issues such as human rights abuses, suppression of freedom of speech, marginalisation of women and minorities in Pakistan.
However, senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, a former committee head of human rights in the senate of Pakistan, said that while the US had been “silent for a long time when it involves democracy and human rights violation”, the Biden administration could play a crucial role in holding Khan’s administration to account.
“It can be damaging for Pakistan,” said Khokhar. “The current Khan regime is known for the suppression of free speech and democratic norms. We think Biden will go hard on Pakistan.”