Geopolitics and jihadismBiden’s dangerous embrace of Pakistan
The United States rarely learns from its mistakes, because it suffers from what the late political scientist Hans Morgenthau called "strategic narcissism". Each U.S. president seems to believe the world is waiting for American direction and devises policies based on this flawed assumption.
For example, President Joe Biden seems determined to repeat past blunders by resuming America’s coddling of Pakistan. Successive U.S. presidents have failed to appreciate that America’s longstanding partnership with Pakistan’s rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency has allowed Pakistan to institutionalise terrorism by employing armed jihadists in low-intensity asymmetric warfare against neighbouring countries. For example, Pakistan has always sought to colonise Afghanistan by installing a regime that would do its bidding, so the ISI created the Taliban in the early 1990s. With the Taliban back in control after the ISI engineered America’s humiliating defeat in Afghanistan, Pakistan has got its wish.
An unholy alliance
Pakistan itself has become an extremist mecca that hosts multiple United Nations-designated terrorist entities. The U.S. found al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden – the mastermind behind the worst terrorist attack in American history – living next to the Pakistan Military Academy. Other 9/11 plotters – including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, al-Qaida’s third in command – were also captured in Pakistan. And yet, despite its terrorist ties, Pakistan’s politically powerful military, including its ISI, has managed to get off scot-free.
On the recent 21st anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Biden pledged to continue monitoring and disrupting terrorist activities "wherever we find them, wherever they exist", while noting that it took "ten years to hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden". Yet, disturbingly, Biden has reversed the policy of his predecessor, Donald Trump, to keep Pakistan at arm’s length until it ended its unholy alliance with terrorist organisations.
Biden could have taken advantage of Pakistan’s desperate need for an International Monetary Fund bailout to compel it to sever its links with state-backed terrorist groups. Instead, his administration recently helped the country stave off an imminent debt default by securing the IMF board’s approval for the immediate disbursement of a $1.1 billion aid package.
U.S reluctant to use leverage
This is not the only leverage over Pakistan that the Biden administration has been reluctant to use. With American and Chinese support, Pakistan is close to exiting the "grey list" of the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the inter-governmental agency combatting terrorist financing and money laundering. The fact that Pakistani authorities have not addressed the reason their country was placed on that list in 2018 – tolerating terrorist financing – appears to matter little. In fact, Pakistan should have been placed on the FATF’s most punitive "black" list, a status that usually invites Western sanctions. But American troops were fighting the Taliban at the time and the U.S., seeking to moderate Pakistan’s approach to Afghanistan, successfully lobbied against it.
Nothing better illustrates Biden’s embrace of Pakistan than the $450 million deal unveiled this month to modernise the cash-strapped country’s U.S.-supplied F-16 fleet, despite the risk that it might harm America’s close strategic relationship with India. For decades, the U.S. had armed Pakistan to the teeth, a role subsequently taken over by China as a manoeuvre against India. The F-16s were given to Pakistan as a reward for its serving as the staging ground for the covert U.S. war against the Soviet forces occupying Afghanistan in the 1980s, when Pakistan also launched its nuclear-weapons program clandestinely. Pakistan’s four active F-16 squadrons remain central to its air-warfare plans against India; in fact, some were involved in a February 2019 skirmish across the Line of Control in Kashmir.
The U.S. justified the deal by disingenuously claiming that equipping Pakistan’s F-16s with cutting-edge avionics would advance counterterrorism. But the move – announced without warning India, which was hosting senior U.S. officials at the time – will likely renew scepticism towards the U.S. among Indian officials. Biden has said nothing about China’s 28-month-long frontier aggression against India, and his State Department has chosen to remain neutral by urging the two powers to find "a peaceful resolution". By strengthening Pakistan – China’s client state – the F-16 deal further imperils U.S.-India relations.
A "major non-NATO ally"
Biden’s enthusiastic re-engagement with Pakistan dismisses those who called on the U.S. to punish Pakistan for its pivotal role in the Afghanistan debacle. Far from imposing sanctions or adding Pakistan to the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, his administration has championed the country as a "major non-NATO ally", a status conferred on 17 other countries as well – but not India.
This approach should not come as a surprise. The U.S. did not impose sanctions on Pakistan even after it aided and abetted the Taliban’s killing of American soldiers. Instead, the U.S. treated Pakistan as a gatekeeper of its geopolitical interests in the region. America’s weakened position following its Afghan fiasco has only increased its dependence on the ISI, which continues to facilitate the Biden administration’s outreach to the Taliban.
The recent assassination of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul by an American drone strike would not have been possible without U.S. access to Pakistani airspace, which explains Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s commitment to "expanding the U.S.-Pakistan partnership". But at the heart of this partnership is a Faustian bargain whereby the Biden administration condones Pakistan’s harbouring of known terrorists and eases sanctions on the brutal Taliban regime, despite its close ties with al-Qaida.
The Biden administration’s reluctance to learn from previous U.S. failures ensures that short-term geopolitical considerations will continue to drive American foreign policy, despite the long-term strategic damage to America’s interests. Biden’s approach will nurture a major hub of international terrorism and jihadism, allowing Pakistan to set regional fires while pretending to be a firefighter.
© Project Syndicate 2022
Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.