The 79-year-old US President Joe Biden, while talking about US foreign policy during a private Democratic Party fundraiser in California, made a comment about Pakistan, saying Pakistan may be “one of the most dangerous nations in the world” as it has “nuclear weapons without any cohesion.” The remarks came at a most critical moment in the patchy relations between the two Cold War close friends, which resulted in the end of the bipolar system with the collapse of former Soviet Union and in fighting against terrorism after 9/11 for almost two decades.
The unexpected bombshell remarks by the US president left leaders in Pakistan, “stunned”. Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif rejected Biden’s comments on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capability and called it “factually incorrect and misleading”. Foreign Minister Bilawal said he was, “surprised, I believe this is exactly the sort of misunderstanding that is created when there is a lack of engagement,” addng. “We will continue on the positive trajectory of engagements we are having so far.”
Former PM Imran khan reacted: “I have two questions. One, what info has this unwarranted conclusion on our nuclear capability when, having been PM, I know we have one of the most secure nuclear command & control systems?” His second question was, “Unlike the US which has been involved in wars across the world, when has Pakistan shown aggression especially post-nuclearization?”
Imran Khan criticized the sitting government, saying that Biden’s statement is a total failure of the government’s foreign policy. The PML-N led the government’s claims of a “reset of relations with the US”? Is this the “reset”? he questioned.
The controversy came just more than a week after Pakistan’s military chief, General Qamar Bajwa, made a trip to the US and held high level meetings with US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. Moreover, last month, PM Sharif thanked president Biden, for highlighting and urging the international community to help the South Asian nation recover from devastating floods that have affected some 30 million people. He also met with Biden in the side line of UNGA meeting. Further Finance Minister Ishaq Dar was also in the US last week.
The statement by Biden comes at a time when there has been a positive momentum in the bilateral relationship between Pakistan and the US. Since the change of government there has been a flurry of engagements between the two countries.
Prior to his concern about Pakistan nuclear weapons, President Biden might have kept in mind, Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945, the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and most recently Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden himself. They are the ones with their thumbs on the nuclear button in Ukraine. If Pakistan can be a scary place with its nuclear weapons, then so is India, Israel, and North Korea.
A close analysis of the emerging scenario in relation between the two countries depicts that the western capitals, particularly the US, being concerned about Pakistan mainly because of three reasons. First, and the foremost reason is the persistent extremism, resurgence of militant insurgents in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa, inaction of the provincial government and a confused approach by military and civil leadership coupled with political polarization and economic meltdown.
The second reason regards the nuclear issues. Ever since May 1998, when Pakistan first began testing nuclear weapons, claiming its national security demanded such, American presidents have been haunted by the fear that Pakistan’s stockpile of nukes could fall into the wrong hands. That fear, former President Barack Obama translated into carefully chosen words, “The single biggest threat to U.S. security, both short term, medium term and long term,” he asserted, “would be the possibility of a terrorist organization obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Pakistan’s political and military leadership have time and again assured a succession of anxious presidents. Whether it be Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Tehreek-e-Labaik, al-Qaida, or the Afghan Taliban’s Quetta Shura — these terrorist organizations have always been under our constant surveillance, checked and rechecked. But American doubts about the official assurances of Pakistan and have fallen largely on deaf ears at the White House, principally because one president after another has learned from American intelligence that these same Pakistani leaders have often been working surreptitiously with the terrorists to achieve common goals. For example, shortly after 9/11, Osama bin Laden, escaping from the US capture, hid in Pakistan when the U.S. finally caught up with and killed him near the military academy in Abbottabad.
The U.S. decades close working with Pakistan’s military and civil authorities has learned, not to trust Pakistan, realizing that a lie here and there might be part of the diplomatic game, famously known as, the “double game “. This despite Pakistan helping the US in the war against terrorism for last two decades in Afghanistan, providing a level playing ground in reaching an agreement with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, and not further bailing out the Trump and Biden administrations in a safe exist from Afghanistan.
Despite improvements and commitments to nuclear security in Pakistan, the “lack of stability in other sectors” continues to worry US policymakers, especially with the persistent risk of escalation between India and Pakistan, resurgence of militants, soft corner of establishment to the extremists, political instability and economic meltdown in the country.
The fact is that in the recent past, Pakistan-US ties have witnessed a cold phase. The American establishment was chastened by its chaotic exit from Afghanistan. Moreover, Biden’s attitude towards the PTI administration was distant, while former PM Imran Khan’s ‘Cable-gate’ conspiracy has certainly accelerated the US apprehensions. It was thought that after the coalition (PDM) government came to power things would improve. But Biden’s latest outburst indicates anything but warmth towards Pakistan.
A third point is the current challenges to the country. Pakistan is facing a deflating economy, spiraling inflation, the rising arc of terrorism and a political system near paralysis. To this list we can add the aftermath of the most catastrophic flooding the country has ever seen. The result is political paralysis, amid an economy pregnant with pressures of unmanageable proportions that has pushed millions of people below the poverty line.
After the US withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, large quantities of highly sophisticated weapons, which were used by Afghan security forces, have made their way to the region’s black markets. Taliban have re-emerged in their former stronghold, less than a decade after the military operation to wipe them out of erstwhile former FATA particularly from Swat valley.
Pakistan is registering a 40pc rise in terrorism in 2021 compared to 2020 — stoked in no small measure by the victory of the Afghan Taliban next door. The citizens of KP, many of whom suffered through the worst of the ‘war on terror’, saw the writing on the wall long ago. But the government seemed to be in denial mode, pinning its hopes on talks with the TTP that were doomed to fail.
Despite an internal grim security situation, the truth is that Pakistan’s nukes are in safe hands. While there may have been some apprehensions in past decades regarding the security of the atomic programs, these have long since been addressed; even foreign officials and independent think tanks have endorsed Pakistan’s commitment to nuclear safety.
In the wake of the apprehensions shown by US president, irrespective of its merit and demerits, the only option available with Pakistan is to focus on the internal impasse. The country is passing through challenging times. We need to lower the political tension by showing flexibility and accommodation. The current political tussle has impacted the premier institutions of the country. Further the regime change has failed to reduce the political and economic instability in the country. The coalition leaders should come forward to establish communication lines with the former PM Imran Khan to find a way out of the current political polarization.
In such a bleak situation, Pakistan needs to take immediate remedial measures. The first and the foremost is to put the house in order by taking firm actions against the militants in the erstwhile province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, shun the eschatology of Ghazwa-hind forever, resolving political disputes with in the country amicably, taking immediate measures for economic development, strengthening all institutions of national importance, introducing electoral reforms and holding free and fair elections, normalization of relations and re-establish trade relations with neighboring countries by resolving disputes peacefully through diplomacy and dialogue, keep moving gradually from geo strategic to geo economic as enunciated in the national security policy document and the last not the least change the each word in action of the milestone speech of COAS General Bajwa in Security Dialogue conference held on 2nd April 2022 at Islamabad.
Those steps, if taken, will ease the uncertainty at home and definitely improve the image and perception of Pakistan in the international community particularly address the concerns of the US about Pakistan as a responsible nuclear state and pave the way for bringing the relations back on track with United State and with other regional countries.
Sher Khan Bazai, Former Secretary Education, Baluchistan, Pakistan. The writer can be reached at [email protected]