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Pakistan’s national security adviser has complained about US president Joe Biden’s failure to contact Prime Minister Imran Khan as Washington seeks help to stop the Taliban taking over Afghanistan following US troop withdrawals.
The cold shoulder from Washington comes as the Taliban has captured swaths of territory across Afghanistan in a ruthless offensive emboldened by the US pullout. The government of Afghan president Ashraf Ghani has openly criticised Pakistan for supporting the Taliban to secure its strategic interests in the region.
Washington leaned on Pakistan in recent years to help bring senior Taliban leadership to the negotiating table and secure a deal to exit the country with few attacks on American soldiers. But despite calls from Khan to be a partner for peace and broaden US-Pakistan relations beyond Afghanistan, Biden has yet to call him since taking office this year.
“The president of the United States hasn’t spoken to the prime minister of such an important country who the US itself says is make-or-break in some cases, in some ways, in Afghanistan — we struggle to understand the signal, right?” Moeed Yusuf, Pakistan’s national security adviser, told the Financial Times in an interview at Pakistan’s embassy in Washington.
“We’ve been told every time that . . . [the phone call] will happen, it’s technical reasons or whatever. But frankly, people don’t believe it,” he said.
“If a phone call is a concession, if a security relationship is a concession, Pakistan has options,” he added, refusing to elaborate.
Pakistan has cultivated deep ties with its “iron brother” China, which has invested billions in infrastructure projects as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.
A senior Biden administration official said: “There are still a number of world leaders President Biden has not been able to speak with personally yet. He looks forward to speaking with Prime Minister Khan when the time is right.”
The diplomatic affront is the latest setback in US-Pakistan relations after their co-operation during the war on terror following the 9/11 attack on the twin towers by al-Qaeda, the Islamist group founded by Osama bin Laden.
In 2004, the US named Pakistan an official major non-Nato ally, spurred by Washington’s need for support to fight in Afghanistan. But US administrations have since regularly accused their ally of harbouring Taliban insurgents, claims denied by Pakistan.
Under the Trump administration, the US severed $2bn in security assistance to Pakistan after Donald Trump accused his ally of “nothing but lies & deceit”. After Trump made a deal with the Taliban that relied on help from Pakistan, however, he invited Khan to the White House.
Yusuf travelled to Washington as part of a delegation including the head of Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency, to discuss the Afghan crisis.
A person familiar with last week’s discussions with national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the conversation about Afghanistan had been “tough” but that securing a political settlement — which regional experts see as unlikely while the Taliban is making gains on the battlefield — could help improve the US-Pakistan relationship dramatically.
“There is a lot of effort under way to try to get that [negotiated settlement] process to be a more meaningful process,” said the person. “This is a moment where, arguably, our interests really align, but it’s really up to them to see what they want to do next.”
Some analysts in Washington have suggested Khan was snubbed because he is seen as a puppet of Pakistan’s powerful security and military apparatus.
“There is no question of a civil-military disconnect in Pakistan, let me be categorical if the Prime Minister had not instructed me and the delegation to be here, we won’t have been here,” said Yusuf, who added that Pakistan had diminished leverage over the Taliban.
During their visit, US broadcaster PBS aired an interview with Khan in which he said the US “really messed it up” in Afghanistan, adding that Washington had treated Pakistan “more like a hired gun”. It was one of a recent slew of critical pieces aimed at US audiences that struck some US officials as oddly timed given Pakistan’s efforts to secure a reset.
Yusuf said his talk with Sullivan had been “constructive” but that Pakistan would “reconsider” such media appearances if they were backfiring, saying the goal was “not to upset anybody [but to] put very forthrightly Pakistan’s view on the situation”.
Additional reporting by Stephanie Findlay in New Delhi