No one knew, in October 2008, why then-President of Pakistan Asif Ali Zardari awarded the Hilal-e-Pakistan (Crescent of Pakistan) to then-US Vice President Joe Biden. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government announced that Biden and Republican Senator Richard Lugar would be recognised for their services to Pakistan. But what services?
Just a few months after the announcement of the honour, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani spilled the beans on the issue. He told the media on January 5, 2009 that the then-Vice President Joe Biden had “played a key role in forcing General Pervez Musharraf in restoring democracy.”
Prime Minister Gillani was referring to Joe Biden’s dialogue with President Pervaiz Musharraf after the imposition of emergency on November 3, 2007. Joe Biden was the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of US Congress, and he had made it clear in his call that if democracy would not be restored after January, the US congress would withdraw military support to Pakistan. Biden told the Democratic Convention in November 2007: “I have made it clear to Musharraf personally, when he called me, if he did not take off his uniform, if he did not hold fair and free elections by the middle of January, I would, on the floor of the Senate, move to take away the aid we’re giving with regard to F-16s and P-3s.” On the same day, Mr Biden spoke to the PPP Chairman Benazir Bhutto on Pakistan’s political situation; Benazir Bhutto had recently launched a campaign against the emergency and continued her public appearances despite an attempt on her life in Karachi.
During this period, Pakistan was heavily relying on the United States, hence such a threat carried long term implications for Pakistan. On November 11 in a press conference, a week after Biden’s statement, President Musharraf announced that election would be held in the first week of January and the whole process will be completed by January 9, 2008, before Muharram. However, taking Muharram in consideration, elections were held on February 15, 2008.
Joe Biden, who was a Senator at that time, made sure that he would be in Pakistan on the day of the election. He visited polling stations with John Kerry and Chuck Hagel in Lahore. His visit was part of a three-country tour which included Afghanistan and India as well. Two weeks later, he explained to an audience in the Council for Foreign Relations (CFR) that he was the first person who met President Musharraf the day after the election. “We were the first group to meet with him the morning after the election—the first individuals to meet with him. And I’ve known him for about 12 years. He walked in and it sort of took us all back a little bit. He said, well, the election—we lost. And he made it very straightforwardly clear that he’s prepared to retire to the responsibilities of the President, which you know are significantly less inclusive than the Prime Minister, under the constitution.”
President Joe Biden is the first President of the United States who has vast experience in dealing with Pakistan; he has met with Pakistani leadership in the capacity of a Senator and Vice President during the last 20 years. When he was asked a question during a Democratic presidential debate in 2007 about Pakistan, he said he had a plan for Pakistan. And his plan was “to move from military aid to giving to the middle class there. The middle class is overwhelmingly the majority. They get no connection with the United States. We have to significantly increase our economic aid relative to education, relative to NGOs, relative to all those things that make a difference in the lives of ordinary people over there, and not be doing it through the military side.” He introduced the term “Pakistan policy,” and asked the Bush administration in 2007 to move away from the Musharraf policy.
President Biden has always had a different approach on Pakistani policies towards the Taliban and Afghanistan. He acknowledged the fact that Pakistan is caught between India on the eastern border and militants on the western borders. In his address to the Council on Foreign Relations, he mentioned that the USA had invaded Iraq just after starting the Afghanistan war. “That is when Musharraf concluded that we were not serious about finishing the job in Afghanistan; he began to cut his own deals with the extremists in Pakistan.”
Senator Biden was referring to Pakistan’s agreements with the militant commanders in 2004 and 2005 when the USA was busy with the Iraq war. In April 2004, Pakistani authorities signed a peace deal with a local Taliban commander Naek Muhammad Wazir. This deal is known as Shakai Peace Agreement which bound Naek Muhammad to cease support for foreign militants such as Arabs, Uzbeks, and Chechens. However, Naek Muhammad did not honour the agreement and continued to support foreign militants. Almost a year after, in February 2005, Pakistani authorities had signed another deal, but this time with Baitullah Mahsood—known as the Sararogha Peace Deal. President Bush’s administration had criticised Pakistan for the deal. In response, Joe Biden said President Musharraf had started to concentrate most of its military on the Indian border, and not on the Afghan border, because the Pakistani government realized that the USA was not serious in finishing the Afghan war.
However, Joe Biden has always been aware of the importance of the Pakistani military in the region. This is highlighted by the fact that his appointee as the Secretary Defence stated, just days before the President’s oath-taking ceremony, that the Biden administration would restore military to military contacts with Pakistan.
This time when President Biden has taken charge of the United States, he has leverages as well as challenges on the front with Pakistan. He has the leverage of knowing Pakistani civil and military establishment, but he would need to be cognisant of the fact that Pakistan does not have the same form of reliance on the US anymore. China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has changed the entire dynamic and now Pakistan has more than one ally who is willing to extend support in the field of defence and finance. Moreover, Pakistan and Russia have strengthened their defence ties, and both countries have conducted several joint military exercises, further integrating their militaries.
President Joe Biden now has two opportunities at hand. Firstly, the option to finish the unfinished business in Afghanistan and secondly, to strengthen the relationship with Pakistan. He has firsthand knowledge of the Afghan issue, which he believes has to be resolved quickly. During his election campaign, he had reiterated his long-standing position that US withdrawal should occur in a gradual manner to ensure that there would not be a vacuum for Al-Qaeda and Islamic State to fill in. The Obama administration, in which Biden was the Vice President, had implemented a policy of relentless drone attacks on Al-Qaida and Taliban hideouts, which had killed several key militant leaders. If the US adopts an aggressive policy during the Biden administration, it could have detrimental effects on the US-Pakistan relations, as Pakistan has made great efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table. Therefore, the US would need Pakistan more than ever in the Afghan war to make Afghan war a success story of the Biden administration.
For President Joe Biden, the road in this region is likely to be bumpy. President Trump had deepened US relations with India and had ignored Pakistan on many issues, along with starting a trade war with China. This has shrunk the decades-old hegemony of the US in this region, as Pakistan moved closer to China, while Afghan leadership agreed to provide China with a role in the peaceful settlement of the two-decade-long Afghan war. On the other hand, President Biden would have to take a clear stance against the Indian government’s fascist policy against Muslims in India and the violation of human rights in Indian Occupied Kashmir. This would mean the oldest regional partner, Pakistan, needs to be brought diplomatically closer before taking a moral stand against India. On China-US relations, some believe Pakistan can play a 1971s role once again—when Pakistan arranged Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China—which started a trend of good relations between the US and China.
Like other countries, Pakistan is certainly eager to see the positions taken by the new administration on Afghanistan, India, and China. However, Pakistan is getting ready to face the worst scenario, where withdrawal plans will be delayed and US-China ties will further deteriorate.