Cold War II and Pakistan-US relations

By: Nasim Zehra      Published: 02:08 PM, 19 Dec, 2021
Cold War II and Pakistan-US relations
Representational image.

President Joe Biden's June promise of the United States’ latest development blueprint ‘Build Back Better World (B3) is, at least for now it seems, as fanciful as Hillary Clinton's “America’s Pacific Century” pivot to Asia speech, claiming that in rising Asia, the US would be right at the center of the action. Washington's response to the recent strategic setbacks it has experienced has not been the revisiting of American goals and roles successive administrations set out but indeed to force ahead with the US retaining centrality within Asia.

The outcome is a Cold War like scenario gaining momentum, especially within areas surrounding China. Significantly, it is within this context that the US is bound to reach out to Pakistan. Signs of this are already evident. A flurry of travellers from Washington headed into Pakistan in the last few weeks: it included the chairmen of the Congressional foreign affairs committee and of the subcommittee on South Asia, members of the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence Committees of the Senate. No surprise, given Pakistan's geographical location and profile of engagement with countries ranging from China, Afghanistan and India especially.  

What preceded these visits, post August 15 is significant too. In Washington, after the August 15 fall of Kabul to the Taliban, America’s dual reaction has been significant. One, was the expected and continuing search for excuses for its failures in Afghanistan. Pakistan, a partner Washington had both opted for and also distrusted, is therefore the most mentioned excuse for its failure.

Meanwhile, the reality of an occupying State's defeat in Afghanistan flowing from a flawed politico-military strategy was amply reflected in congressional debates in which congress people rigorously held generals accountable for the trillion dollar occupation that ended in humiliation.

Two, the Biden administration's panic over the loss of what Washington believed was their influence zone in an important geo-strategic neighborhood is unstated, but it is deeply felt by its national security community. Physical presence or influence in spaces around China is viewed as an asset among Washington's current cold warriors. Losing such a space is viewed as a strategic setback. For example, Bagram, the military base 60 miles north of Kabul where the US spent millions of dollars and the hub of its military operations, was only 400 miles west of China and 500 miles east of Iran-- now lost to Washington. Although primarily concerned about Afghanistan as a base for terrorists targeting the US as well, the end of US occupation in Afghanistan also meant the end of US influence in a country which was a potential outpost in an important geostrategic neighborhood.

Whatever the Biden administration complaints and concerns over Afghanistan, its focus has largely shifted to China.

In a little noticed but graphic illustration of the China threat, was the ‘Afghanistan Counterterrorism, Oversight, and Accountability Act of 2021’ tabled by 22 Senators in September. The 57-page bill which was being seen in Pakistan as anti-Pakistan was not even mainly about Pakistan. Instead, the proposed Bill opened with broad strategic concerns. It drew attention to increasing Chinese and Russian influence in the region and beyond. It reiterated strategic concerns that were collectively raised by the heads of G-7 States at the July summit. In their collective wisdom, they had identified China as a major threat. They floated the concept of Build Back Better World (3B4), a development initiative to counter the Chinese One Belt One Road global flagship program. The concern with the Chinese threat extending to include Russia as well had interestingly been reflected in the proposed Bill under the rubric of terrorism and Afghanistan.

This bill candidly laid out its two main concerns: “identification of areas where the United States government can strengthen diplomatic economic and defense cooperation with the Government of India, as appropriate, to address economic and security challenges posed by the People's Republic of China, the Russian Federation and the Taliban in the region, and an assessment of how the changes to India's security environment resulting from the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan will affect United States engagement with India.”

Not surprisingly, alongside this Bill had come the convenient justification for its content, the rationale for why India’s defense was a concern.  Sections of the stories in the Indian press carried stories about allegedly ‘terrorists’ coming out of Afghanistan and crossing the Line of Control into Indian-administered Kashmir. 

The economic, military and now political assertion by China is being met by multiple responses. The recently held democracy summit hosted by Biden, which Pakistan did not attend, was one such response. Underlying Washington’s sound and some fury over China’s rise, there is strategic panic.

None of this ought to be surprising for Pakistan, neither the rising China threat rhetoric and action nor the growing strategic embrace with India. All this is old news for Pakistan. Pakistan, with its half partnership with US via SEATO and CENTO also has experiential wisdom under its belt…were Pakistan to draw lessons from Cold War 1.

Clearly, the government will have to continue on a policy path that eases the contextual pressures on Pakistan, expands its policy options and promotes the interest of the people of Pakistan. It won’t be easy.– Courtesy Arab News