President Biden and the Pakistan-US Relationship

18 February 2021 Tridivesh Singh Maini, FDI Visiting Fellow Download PDF

Key Points

  • The key factors in the US-Pakistan relationship will be Afghanistan, action against terror groups and the Pakistan-China relationship.
  • While Imran Khan’s personal relationship with Trump was cordial, US aid under the latter’s administration diminished considerably.
  • Islamabad hopes that Biden and those US officials familiar with Pakistan will revive financial assistance, since Biden was one of the key architects of the Kerry-Lugar Bill.
  • While Biden and his team may try to strengthen ties with the Pakistani Government without losing sight of their broader strategic goals, Khan, unlike his predecessors, especially Nawaz Sharif, has not even attempted to correct the civilian-military imbalance.


Many observers have forecast what they think will be US President Joe Biden’s likely South Asia policy. Given the complex and ever changing geopolitical architecture in South Asia, especially the Afghanistan peace agreement and the changing geo-economics as a result of China’s rising economic clout there, Biden’s approach has engendered much interest.

An important regional challenge in South Asia is Pakistan, given its location. Biden, an old foreign policy hand, was one of the architects of the Kerry-Lugar Bill which sought to increase civilian aid to Pakistan to strengthen governance and capacity building to US$7.5 billion ($9.6 billion) over a five year period, between 2009 and 2014. The Bill was signed into law as the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act by President Barack Obama in October 2009. It is noteworthy that one of the reasons for the further deterioration of ties, which have steadily witnessed a downward spiral, between Pakistan and the US in recent years was the suspension of US military aid to Pakistan, worth around US$2 billion ($2.6 billion) for failing to clamp down on terrorist organisations like the Haqqani Network and the Pakistani Taliban.

Biden also shared a good rapport with leaders of the two older parties: the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) senior leader and former president, Asif Ali Zardari, and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) leader and former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, with whom he worked during his tenure as Vice-President. The PPP controlled the government until 2013 while, for the remaining part of Biden’s tenure as Vice-President, he worked with Nawaz Sharif’s party.


Trump-Imran Relations

Despite clear differences between the US and Pakistan over a host of issues, Imran Khan shared a cordial relationship with former president, Donald Trump. Just days before the last presidential election’s result was announced, Khan praised Trump, predicted his triumph, and noted that Trump is an outsider to the system who was keen to usher in political change. Even after the election results were announced, Khan said that Trump would have triumphed but for the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Official Reactions to Biden’s Victory

A Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman, commenting on ties with the Biden Administration, said:

We have achieved a lot by working together in the past. The logic for continued engagement and coordination is even more compelling in the context of shared geopolitical and security challenges.

On 20 January 2021, the Pakistani Prime Minister tweeted a congratulatory message to President Biden, seeking to strengthen Pakistan-US ties and to enhance co-operation in areas like trade, climate change and promotion of peace in the region.

Significantly, just days after Biden’s inauguration, Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted four men convicted of abducting and executing Daniel Pearl, an American journalist. That ruling drew flak from the US, with White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki saying:

… we call on the Pakistani government to expeditiously review its legal options including allowing the United States to prosecute Sheikh for the brutal murder of an American citizen and journalist.

Important Issues That Will Dictate the Overall Relationship

Looking beyond personal relationships, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Smith has already referred to the need for cordial relations with Pakistan and its strategic importance within South Asia, especially in the context of Afghanistan. Smith also stated that Pakistan has acted against terror groups, albeit much more needs to be done.

Ultimately, the bilateral relationship is likely to be driven by the larger geopolitical picture of South Asia, Afghanistan, the China factor and, to some extent, personal relationships between Biden and old hands in the Pakistan establishment.

The Biden Administration has already indicated that it will review the deal signed between the US and the Taliban, arguing that the Taliban has violated all the conditions, such as reduction of violence, being genuine in negotiations with the Afghan Government and stopping support to transnational networks such as Al Qaeda, which were set as prerequisites for the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. During his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said:

We want to retain some capacity to deal with any resurgence of terrorism, which is what brought us there in the first place.

Pakistan has urged the US Government to stick to the agreement. Given the remarks of senior functionaries in the Biden Administration, it is clear that while Washington prefers to keep Pakistan onside, the Biden Administration may not be in a hurry to reduce the US military presence in Afghanistan.

The China Factor

The Biden Administration’s views towards Pakistan-China co-operation may not be very different from those of its predecessor, given that its repeated criticism of China’s economic model and hegemonic tendencies have not been very different from those of the Trump Administration, which dubbed China’s lending as “predatory” and argued that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) was a strong illustration of China’s “Debt Trap Diplomacy”. The Biden Administration will, nevertheless, recognise ground realities and the fact that Pakistan needs China economically. A senior official in the State Department during the Trump Administration, Alice G. Wells, commenting on CPEC, said:

I’ve enumerated the United States government’s concerns over the CPEC, lack of transparency involved in the projects and unfair rates of profit that are guaranteed to Chinese organisations.

Those remarks were not received kindly and led to strong responses from both Pakistan and China. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo similarly said that it made absolutely no sense for:

… IMF tax dollars and associated with that American dollars that are part of the IMF funding, for those to go to bail out Chinese bondholders or China itself.

Pompeo’s views were echoed by Wells, who also said that some sort of conditionality, perhaps greater transparency from Pakistan with regard to the CPEC, was imperative. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi made the point, however, that the US should not view Pakistan’s economic relationship with China from a “zero-sum” perspective. The Imran Khan Government, it would appear, expects some laxity in terms of its ties to Beijing.

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF)

The other important challenge that Biden faces stems from the FATF’s rulings on Pakistan. So far, China has prevented Pakistan from being blacklisted by the FATF. Biden will need to balance US interests in South Asia with increasing criticism of Pakistan for its inability to reign in its military and also control terror financing. Defence Secretary Smith’s statement regarding Pakistan gave out mixed signals and, with the Pakistan Army effectively controlling the country’s foreign policy rather than the elected government, the US’s immediate interests in Afghanistan may just give Pakistan a reprieve – despite the increasing pressure to take a tougher line with it.

The India Angle

Pakistan will likely try to highlight issues pertaining to human rights, especially in Kashmir, and also the possible impact of certain policies on certain minorities. There has been domestic criticism of the Modi Government by opposing political parties, large sections of civil society and sections of the media for its approach towards certain issues. This specifically includes the revocation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which gave Kashmir special status, the restrictions imposed in its aftermath, and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

Democrats and Interventions on Certain Issues

A number of Democrat policymakers in the US have also spoken up on the above issues. More recently, the US State Department, while commenting on the protests by Indian farmers, stated that, while in principle, it supported economic reforms in the agricultural sector, peaceful protests were an important feature of any democracy. Like any other bilateral relationship, India and the US are not likely to have identical views on all issues.

De-Hyphenation of Islamabad and New Delhi

At the same time, it would be important to bear in mind that Washington has begun to de-hyphenate India from Pakistan over the past two decades and has engineered a convergence with New Delhi due to a myriad of factors, especially China’s rise and India’s economic progress in the past two decades.

 Pakistan’s treatment of its own minorities, the dubious human rights record of its army, and Imran Khan’s curbing of dissent and his approach towards the opposition political parties (Khan has also stated that democracy is an obstruction to development), reduce the ability of Pakistan to occupy the moral high ground when it points a finger at India.

Can the Democrats push India and Pakistan towards the Dialogue Table?

Previous Democratic Administrations in Washington encouraged Pakistan and India to explore opportunities for trade and to encourage people-to-people contact. Also envisaged was India-Pakistan-Afghanistan trilateral co-operation via initiatives such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline as a component of its vision for the New Silk Road, to which Hillary Clinton referred. In the current environment, when ties between New Delhi and Islamabad are at their lowest ebb, this is highly unlikely.

Pakistan army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, in an address made at a graduation ceremony at the Pakistan Air Force’s Asghar Khan Academy in Risalpur, referred to the need for peaceful relations within the region. Many would argue that it was not so much an overture to India, but a message to the new administration in Washington DC that Pakistan is willing to reduce tensions with India.

Old Hands in Pakistan

Long-serving diplomats in the Pakistani establishment and political class, who have links in Washington DC, do not feel comfortable with Islamabad’s increasing reliance on Beijing. There have been recent differences between them and Beijing on the CPEC, but also between them and the Khan Government on the souring of ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which, in the past have bailed out Pakistan from economic crises. Their input would be an important factor in the Khan Government’s foreign policies. In such a situation, a manageable relationship with the US that could benefit Pakistan economically is essential.

In conclusion, the US-Pakistan bilateral relationship will be driven by a multitude of factors. While the army was dominant in Pakistan during Biden’s tenure as Vice-President, political leaders slowly began to assert themselves in different ways. Imran Khan, who is at loggerheads with the political class, is totally dependent on the establishment and has not been able to cash in on his personal popularity and charisma. The Biden Administration will thus be compelled to deal with the Pakistan army for its strategic interests. It may also, after settling down, dangle carrots in the form of economic assistance, with a view to mending ties and strengthening Pakistan’s civilian forces. Two of the major obstacles in the relationship are likely to be Islamabad’s increasing proximity towards Beijing, and the zero-sum approach of Pakistan’s deep state, which is trapped in that mindset.

About the Author

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based Policy Analyst and FDI Visiting Fellow.
Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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