By: M Bilal Lakhani
American politics is so broken at the moment that it makes Pakistan look like a mature democracy. If you think this is an exaggeration, the sitting President of the United States of America is claiming that the November 3rd elections will be rigged. Trump is repeatedly refusing to say that he will accept election results, if he loses. He also claims the American establishment or deep state doesn’t want him in power for a second term. Pakistani politicians say similar things but only when they are in the opposition. For the most powerful man on earth, to claim that elections his government is conducting will be rigged — against him — is a remarkable moment in US history.
Trump’s belligerence is a function of two key factors: first, he fears he’s going to lose to Joe Biden. And second, he loves to project himself as an anti-establishment figure taking everyone on simultaneously. On an ironic side note, when I spoke to the most prominent Pakistani-American Trump voter, Sajid Tarar (Chairman, Muslims for Trump), he explained his support for Trump primarily being driven by anti-establishment sentiment. Anyways, enough about the circus that is the Donald Trump show. Let’s talk about what a likely Biden Presidency means for Pakistan.
There’s bad news, good news and a moon shot. The bad news is that not much will change. Pakistan will continue to be viewed in Washington DC through the prism of Afghanistan. Biden will also want to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, but he’ll be a steadier hand and reduce chances of Pakistan’s nightmare scenario: an abrupt withdrawal of US forces in Afghanistan, which destabilises the region and brings both violence and refugees to Pakistan.
On India, Biden will have to juggle two balls simultaneously. First, America’s national security needs, in which an alliance with India is leveraged to contain arch-rival China, as part of the emerging US-China Cold War. Second, a return to advocating traditional American values on human rights and condemning Indian abuses in Kashmir. Of course, the heavier ball will be national security, but we can expect at least some symbolic slap on the wrists for Modi’s India, as Biden returns America to a more ‘normal’ foreign policy paradigm. Also, important to note that Biden is actively courting Muslim American voters, while Modi supporting Indian Americans leans towards Trump.
The one country in the region where you’ll see the starkest difference between Trump’s foreign policy vs Biden is Iran and that’s good news for Pakistan. Trump unilaterally walked away from the Iran nuclear deal signed by the Obama administration. Biden is likely to re-engage Tehran. This will re-calibrate the power balance in the region, which was leaning heavily towards the Sunni monarchies in the Gulf.
And now for the moon shot. There has been no Pakistan policy in Washington DC for the last two decades. Everything has been done through the lens of Afghanistan. When America needed to defeat the Taliban, Pakistanis were the troublemakers who needed to ‘do more’. When America wanted to break bread with the Taliban to negotiate a withdrawal deal, Pakistanis were suddenly transformed into peacemakers. Can a Joe Biden administration finally craft a missing Pakistan policy in Washington DC?
It’s a moon shot but if Pakistan plays its cards right, we would at least have a receptive ear. As Vice President, Joe Biden famously told Afghan President Karzai to his face that Pakistan is fifty times more important than Afghanistan, when Karzai kept complaining about Pakistan to him. If Biden does take a more planned approach to withdrawing troops from Afghanistan (versus Trump trying to win an election), he can only succeed if there is a peace dividend via economic aid for the regional countries.
Keeping in mind Biden’s view on Iran, Pakistan could engage in proactive diplomacy and present a vision for the region (Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan) that is both peaceful and prosperous. Transforming one of the most violent and volatile regions of the world into a region that inspires hope could give America a face-saving exit from Afghanistan, while nurturing new friends in arch-rival China’s backyard.
This article first published in The Express Tribune.