Why did Joe Biden stop so hastily in Pakistan last week? Perhaps he was delivering a message: Washington has had a change of heart.
The US vice president Joe Biden spent a very busy day last week shuttling between Pakistan and Afghanistan. On a rather hastily scheduled stop after visiting Kabul on January 12, he met separately with the Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari and the prime minister Yousaf Raza Gillani in Islamabad.
Ostensibly, this unscheduled visit was to reassure Pakistan of America’s long-term commitment to the country and to express US concern about the public support for the murder of Salmaan Tasser, the governor of Punjab, killed by his own security guard because of his position against Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
But when thinking about Mr Biden’s relationship with Pakistan, it is important to keep in mind that he has been the strongest opponent to a prolonged US presence in Afghanistan. Mr Biden continued to oppose the “surge” of US troops in Afghanistan, even after it was sanctioned, reluctantly, by the US president Barack Obama. While Mr Biden and Mr Obama favoured talks with the Taliban, General David Petraeus, with some support from the US secretary of state and secretary of defence, opposed these talks until a decisive US victory forced the Taliban to the negotiating table. The Pakistani military leadership opposed Gen Petraeus’s policy, doubting that US forces could achieve a “decisive victory” over the Taliban.
And in fact, the US has had several reasons since last month to re-think the “Petraeus policy” and to re-consider Mr Biden’s view. His visit was unlikely to have been a courtesy call but rather an attempt to show the Pakistanis how the US view was changing.
Recent events have certainly provided the US reason for a re-think. Consider that Burhannuddin Rabbani, who heads the Afghan High Council for Peace and is the only Tajik veteran of the Afghan-Soviet war to have kept contacts with the Taliban, addressed a Pashtun Jirga in the Taliban invested region of Nangarhar. He told them that there was room to reconcile with the Taliban and convinced the Jirga that negotiations should be opened up.
Following this remarkable event, Mr Rabbani was then dispatched to Tehran, while the Afghan president Hamid Karzai travelled to Istanbul for the latest summit hosted by the Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, to bring Afghanistan and Pakistan’s leadership closer together.
Turkey’s efforts to serve as a mediator have proven more effective than America’s but Iran’s role also cannot be overlooked, which provides justification for Mr Rabbani’s visit to Tehran. As a Tajik, he would be more welcome there than a Pashtun. Any reconciliation attempt with the Taliban would benefit from Tehran’s support as Iran has always been concerned about the re-emergence of the die-hard Sunni Taliban, who mistreat the Shiite minority. Though Mr Rabbani’s effort does not appear to have been a success – it appears that Tehran is prepared to “wait and see” – the effort to get them on board is instructive in itself.
Mr Rabbani was not likely to have travelled to Iran for his own enjoyment. He and a 25-member delegation travelled to Islamabad recently where Mr Rabbani met Chief of Army Staff Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani to explain his approach, which includes excluding the US from negotiations with the Taliban.
While allies in this war against terrorism, the US and Pakistan have significantly diverging interests in the “end game” in Afghanistan, particularly in the pursuit of the “Petraeus policy”. To execute this strategy, Pakistan has always been asked to do more, particularly in regard to the presence of the Haqqani group of Taliban in North Waziristan, an act that Pakistan’s Army has consistently refused.
During a meeting that took place last year in Washington, Gen Kayani handed over an 11-page document to Mr Obama containing his analysis of its strategy and where and why the US was in error. Reportedly Mr Obama was taken aback but assured Gen Kiyani that the document would be “fully and seriously considered”. While Pakistan’s duplicity has frequently been highlighted in the US media, here, Pakistan was trying to explain itself. Pakistan, being a geographical neighbour to Afghanistan, has greater justification for guarding its own interests in the long term there than the US. States are expected to guard their own interests first – which the United States has often done with Pakistan – even at the cost of its allies.
But perhaps, rather than increasing mistrust or making room for greater duplicity, the United States and Pakistan are now getting back on the same page. As soon as Mr Biden’s visit to Pakistan was announced, The Washington Post, based on briefings by senior officials, listed Mr Biden’s priorities for the visit which, apart from reassuring Pakistan on a long term commitment, included three important shifts in US policy towards Pakistan. First, the US would no longer insist on an operation in North Waziristan. Secondly, Mr Biden would categorically reassure Pakistan that the US would not undertake ground-based cross border operations in Pakistani territory. And finally, Mr Biden recognised that “Pakistan has an important, if not dominant role in negotiating with the Taliban”.
If that message was indeed delivered, perhaps both Gen Kayani, through his written analysis, handed over to Mr Obama, and the “Rabbani initiative” to push for talks with the Taliban, have changed minds in Washington.