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Pakistan Reader# 233, 19 October 2021

Since January 2021: Why the US President has not called Pakistan’s Prime Minister so far?



The absence of a telephone call between President Joe Biden and Prime Imran Khan is an expression of the current US-Pak ties

Abigail Miriam Fernandez
Project Associate, School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS

From PM to National Security Adviser: What is Pakistan’s complaint?
Since President Joe Biden took office, Prime Minister Imran Khan has expressed his disappointment over President Biden’s reluctance to talk to him. Earlier in September, he said, “He is a busy man,” later adding that President Biden should be asked, “why he is too busy to call.” PM Khan also made a statement saying, “I keep hearing that President Biden hasn't called me. It's his business. It's not like I am waiting for any phone call.” Additionally, he mentioned that since the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, there has been no communication between the two leaders.

Apart from PM Khan, Pakistan’s National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf has also expressed disappointment over President Biden’s reluctance to contact the PM despite considering Islamabad as an important country in some critical issues like Afghanistan. He said, “The president of the United States hasn’t spoken to the prime minister of such an important country who the US itself says is make-or-break in some cases, in some ways, in Afghanistan — we struggle to understand the signal, right?” He added, “We’ve been told every time that… [the phone call] will happen, it’s technical reasons or whatever. But frankly, people don’t believe it,” adding, “If a phone call is a concession, if a security relationship is a concession, Pakistan has options.”

What has been the US response?
Conversely, the United States has not expressed any strong statements against Pakistan, rather it has remained politically correct in its response. During her visit, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said, assured that there is a possibility that President Biden may soon give a call to the PM Khan, saying, “We totally understand that every country wants a call from the president, and it's a pretty much every country maybe not every country, and I'm sure it'll happen sooner rather than later.” However, she mentioned that Washington no longer sees itself building a “broad-based relationship” with Pakistan and that she visiting with a “specific and narrow purpose” of talks on Afghanistan.

Where does the US-Pak relations stand now?
From the above statement, it is clear that there has been a shift in the US-Pak relations. This shift has not been an overnight change but rather gradual. Given that the US-Pak relations have been transactional in nature, the recent factor has been the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Although the relation between the two countries has been marred with mistrust and miscommunication, Islamabad still remains a relevant component in Washington’s overall strategy in the south Asian region. However, the frenzy over the absence of a telephone call between President Biden and PM Khan symbolizes the irritants in the ties. So, what could be the possible reasons why President has not called PM Khan. 

First, the Afghan factor. Pakistan has in various capacities played an important role in addressing the situation in Afghanistan. However, the US sees Pakistan as a mere Taliban facilitator and nothing beyond that. Hence, post the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US sees no utility in engaging with Pakistan. Additionally, the US tried reaching out to Pakistan in assistance for counterterrorism measures only to be rejected. Thus, with Afghanistan out of the picture, there ends the transaction.

Second, the China factor. The relations between Pakistan and China have soared to unprecedented levels. Given this ‘all-weather friendship’ that the two countries share as well as the dependency of Pakistan on China, the US is unlikely to come in between. Additionally, the constant tensions between Washington and Beijing worsen Pakistan’s position further. Thus, ending a transaction before it begins.

Third, shift in the American interest. The US policy deals with Pakistan through one primary lens that of the war on terrorism. However, the US is not solely dependent on Pakistan anymore because of its own capabilities and the capacity that it has gathered from the rest of the region. Additionally, the US has engaged with the rest of the region in various other ventures. Thus, suggesting that Pakistan is no longer a priority for the US. Thus, a lost transaction.

What does Pakistan want? And what is in it for the US?
For Pakistan, a relation with the US is crucial is beneficial for many reasons. According to the Foreign Office spokesperson, “There is a desire on the part of Pakistan, and I believe on part of US as well, to make this relationship broad-based and forward-looking, moving away from looking at it mostly from the perspective of Afghanistan.” Thus, Islamabad is aware that it needs the support of the US and western allies to address their economic crisis, with the help of IMF aid, as well as avoid being blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force. Additionally, Islamabad requires Washington’s help to ensure long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan.

Although the US seems to have put Pakistan to the side, there is much that they can benefit from a broad-based relation. The areas of convergence could be the continuing engagement concerning the war on terror in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Islamic world, the battle against extremism and newer domains of engagements such as combatting climate change.

However, for this to take place the US-Pak relations would have to move from being a transactional one to that of mutually non-transactional relation that is broad-based. This, however, is unlikely to happen anytime soon. 

Does Pakistan have options? What does the statement signify?
NSA Moeed Yusuf has emphasised that Pakistan has other “options” if US President Joe Biden continues to ignore the country’s leadership. Although he did not mention what these “options” are it is clear that he was referring to the Pak-China relations that have emerged over the years. Apart from this Pakistan has also attempted to draw closer to Turkey by supporting its desire of assuming the leadership of the Islamic world. Additionally, Pakistan has taken steps to strengthen its ties with both Russia and Iran as well. Thus, the statement shows that Pakistan still has a number of strategic and beneficial options, however, the question is whether these would compensation or replace the US completely.

References
Hammad Sarfraz, “What’s next for Pakistan and the Us?,” The Express Tribune, 17 October 2021
Frosty ties,” The News International, 12 October 2021
Baqir Sajjad Syed “Regular engagement with US beneficial for both countries: FO,” Dawn, 8 October 2021
Kamran Yousaf, “Islamabad turns to Pakistani American for Biden-Imran call,” The Express Tribune, 4 October 2021
Not waiting for phone call from Biden, says PM Imran,” Dawn, 12 August 2021
Pakistan has other options, NSA Yusuf tells US,” Dawn, 4 August 2021
Stephanie Findlay, “A win for Pakistan’: Imran Khan gambles on Taliban ties,” The Financial Times, 30 September 2021
The darn call,” The Express Tribune, 1 October 2021
Baqir Sajjad Syed, “Anti-terror talks with Pakistan to continue, says US,” Dawn, 9 October 2021
Touqir Hussain, “US Relations with Pakistan: The Need for a Strategic Shift,” The Middle East Institute Policy Brief, May 2008
Vinay Kaura, “After Afghanistan: What’s next for Pakistan and the US?,” The Middle East Institute, 2 September 2021

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