What does “President Biden” mean for Pakistan and Afghanistan? 10 November 2020
Joe Biden comes from solid foreign policy roots; one might call him a ‘pillar’ of the United States’ foreign policy establishment. As long-time Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the US Senate, he knows the issues and the world knows him. The return to power of mainstream foreign policy advocates will be welcomed in many circles and countries. Yet, it may not mean a return to the policies of earlier years, particularly given the current focus of the US electorate on domestic issues and their desire to avoid military interventions. Biden has always been a skeptic on the use of force and on interventions –indeed he opposed the raid into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden, seeing it as too uncertain, and he also opposed the “surge” of troops into Afghanistan at the beginning of the Obama Administration.
Biden has spent a lot of time travelling in foreign countries and meeting with foreign leaders; as Vice President he travelled 1.2 million miles to over 50 countries. Over the years, he has visited Afghanistan numerous times, even once ending up stranded on a hilltop with two other Senators when his helicopter was forced to land. He is thus steeped in the local situations and tends to see policy developments through the local dynamic rather than as big power competitions. He supports the basic goals of US policy around the world: bolster US Alliances, promote development, stop terrorism, spread democracy. His approach emphasizes active diplomacy rather than the use of force as he looks to lead coalitions to address global issues.
It is noteworthy that Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan criticized the award given by his predecessor, Yusuf Gilani, to Biden in 2009 for his role in pressuring President Musharraf to give up power and return Pakistan to democracy. Nonetheless, this will not stand in the way of good relations if Pakistan contributes positively to peace and development in the region.
So, what can we expect from “President” Biden?
First, new momentum in international efforts to deal with global problems, like climate and Covid. He will rejoin the Paris Accords and the World Health Organization and take a leading role in advancing their agendas. He will expect every country to be a partner in these efforts.
Second, he will try to avoid military interventions, favoring active diplomacy instead. We should expect him to continue US troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, bringing the numbers down to a minimal force capable of dealing with terrorist cells that may implant themselves in the country. He will continue to push the negotiating process, especially to support peace negotiations between the Afghans themselves.
Third, he will expect partners in the region, especially Pakistan, to support this process wholeheartedly. Like most members of the Washington establishment, Biden and his team will be very wary of Pakistan’s “duplicity” in supporting the Taliban and other violent groups will professing to be an ally against terrorism. Sincere pressure by Pakistan on the Taliban to end violence and conclude a peace with the government in Kabul can demonstrate to world powers that Pakistan can be an ally in stabilizing the region. This will be the key test for better relations with Washington.
Fourth, he will avoid seeing the region solely in terms of big power competition. The current Administration developed an instinctive “anti-China” reaction and has tended to see developments everywhere through that lens. China’s Belt and Road, including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, appeared as a threat to the recipient countries as well as to the current world order. The Biden Administration will probably take a more nuanced approach: helping countries ensure they get a good deal from China, helping them avoid crushing debt loads, making sure alternatives from development banks are available, and providing support for private sector efforts to develop jobs and industries.
President Biden and Vice President Harris (whose mother was born in India) will seek to continue the twenty-five year effort to develop US relations with India, strategically as a counter-balance to Chinese influence and specifically to promote business, education, and other cooperation. This does not mean a return to an “either Pakistan or India” approach nor does it mean a realignment along China-Pakistan vs. US-India lines. I would expect the new Administration to work hard to promote better relations with all countries of the region, focusing on each one independently and not joining with one against the other. The U.S. will not be drawn into Pakistan-India disputes.President Biden will return the US to a more methodical, considered formulation of US policy, rather than the midnight tweets and personal relationships of the current President. Key advisors, Ambassadors and State Department officials will play important roles in developing and implementing policy. Biden will emphasize diplomacy and development, seeking to return the US to leadership through negotiation, communication and active organizing efforts on world issues. Pakistan has a chance to be a partner with the new Administration if it wants to focus on peace in Afghanistan and economic development in Pakistan.
Richard Boucher was formerly the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia. He has no connection to the new Administration.