Imran Khan’s quest for Joe Biden’s attention
Pakistan’s Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan issued a stern warning to the Joe Biden administration recently. Pakistan is ready to be a partner for peace in Afghanistan, he wrote in a signed piece in The Washington Post, but “we will not host US bases”.
But is Washington DC listening, particularly to Khan?
Biden has been in the White House for more than six months, but has not yet called the PM of a country that has been a frontline state in America’s longest war in Afghanistan: Pakistan’s Khan. Administration officials point out that Biden has also not called many others. He has too many things on his plate, especially the Covid-19 epidemic.
“So, there are a number of leaders that he hasn’t had the opportunity to speak with,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in June when asked at a news conference why Biden hadn’t spoken with Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro. “And one of the reasons why, of course, as many people in this room know, is he’s had an unbelievably packed and crowded agenda, particularly domestically, and trying to beat the pandemic and get on the road to Covid-19 recovery.”
In the same South Asian neighbourhood as Pakistan, however, Biden has found the time to speak multiple times with PM Narendra Modi and host him in virtual summits of Quad — Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the United States (US) — and on climate. Also in the neighbourhood, Biden reached out to Bangladesh’s PM Sheikh Hasina and invited her to his climate summit, which was attended by 40 world leaders in all.
Forty leaders. And Khan was not among them.
Now more worried than ever by the growing estrangement from the US which has been an abusive-but-generous ally, the Pakistanis landed an invitation after some intense lobbying. But it was not the real thing. Biden’s special envoy on climate change, John Kerry, had invited his Pakistani counterpart, special assistant to PM on climate change, Malik Amin Aslam, to a breakout session.
For reasons not clear yet, Biden doesn’t appear to think much of Khan as a counterpart. Other members of his administration have been in touch with their Pakistani counterparts, and repeatedly. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made his first call to foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi the same day he called India’s S Jaishankar. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has probably not talked to his technical counterpart in Pakistan defence minister Pervez Khatak yet, but he has spoken several times with Chief of Army Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa, the man who wields real power.
Possibly tired of waiting for his phone to ring, Khan served a reminder two weeks ago, with a piece in The Post. He is bargaining for concessions, some critics said, pointing to security assistance suspended by former President Donald Trump. Others said it was a desperate call for attention.
The views expressed are personal