Karachi, Pakistan – Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has said his country has hopes for greater engagement with the new US government and called on Joe Biden to follow up on the ongoing Afghan peace process and US troops withdrawal from the country.
Direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, against whom the US has fought an almost 20-year war, are continuing in the Qatari capital Doha but progress remains slow.
There has been an increase in violence in recent weeks, with a surge in targeted attacks and bombings across the country for which the Afghan government has blamed the Taliban.
Pakistan facilitated the intra-Afghan talks and the US-Taliban dialogue and has now called for the US to stick to the agreements.
“I think they (Biden administration) should realise there is an opportunity in Afghanistan and they should persevere with what was initiated and not reverse things,” Qureshi told Al Jazeera on Thursday.
“Push them forward, because, after a long time, we have started moving in the right direction.”
Former US President Donald Trump accelerated a timeline for troop withdrawal agreed with the Taliban in February last year, as the Biden administration comes in with 2,500 US soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan.
Under last year’s historic deal, all US troops are due to leave Afghanistan by April, but the Pentagon recently hinted it could delay that if violence does not abate.
“We are concerned because we feel violence can vitiate the climate,” Qureshi added.
“Pakistan has done a lot, we have really bent backwards to create an environment to facilitate the peace process,” he said, while blaming “spoilers” for the violence, identifying them as internal Afghan players “who have benefited from the war economy” and alleging that “there are elements from outside who do not share our vision, which is a peaceful, stable, prosperous Afghanistan.”
“It is a shared responsibility to begin with but the ultimate responsibility is with the Afghan leadership. It’s their country, it’s their future.”
‘Convergence of interests’
Biden will inherit not only a tricky endgame to the US’s longest war but also a relationship with nuclear-armed Pakistan that sank to new lows during his previous stint in power.
Under former US President Barack Obama, when Biden was vice president, US-Pakistan relations were marked by bitter recriminations about the war in Afghanistan and the frequent US accusations of Pakistan supporting the Taliban and its ally, the Haqqani network.
In 2018, Trump slashed security assistance to Pakistan by $1.1bn over the same allegations, accusing Islamabad of having given the US “nothing but lies and deceit”.
Relations began to warm as the Trump administration took up direct negotiations with the Taliban – carried out mainly by the US special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad – in a process facilitated by Pakistan.
“They should be supportive of what, I feel, is a convergence of interests,” said Qureshi.
“Our approach, thinking, objectives and shared visions are very much in line with the priorities of the new administration. And that convergence can be built further.”
At a US Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Biden’s Secretary of Defense nominee Lloyd Austin termed Pakistan “an essential partner” to peace in Afghanistan.
China relations ‘not a zero-sum game’
Qureshi also called on the US not to view Pakistan’s close ties with China – an economic and political rival to the US – as a “zero-sum game”.
“They have to understand that our relationship with China is not a zero-sum game for them,” he said, making note of China’s $60bn investment in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor.
“They (the US) should come, compete and invest.”
He added that Pakistan was willing to act as a mediator between China and the US, a role it played in 1972 when it facilitated talks to set up an historic visit to Beijing by then-President Richard Nixon.
“Pakistan traditionally has had the opportunity and has built bridges between the two. In this environment, where there is a change … Pakistan can be a bridge-builder.”