The arrival of a new administration in Washington is a moment when governments around the world must test the waters and prepare to recalibrate their expectations. If the Pakistani establishment’s foreign policy goals in the Trump years could be summarised in a single sentence, it was to stop making headlines for the wrong reasons while pursuing its interests. It largely succeeded in this regard.
Under US President Joe Biden, Pakistan's engagement with America is likely to intensify, but its potential will be determined by the administration’s dynamics with Afghanistan, India and China. These countries house Islamabad’s closest allies and most determined foes, but also some of Mr Biden’s top foreign policy priorities. They present difficult terrain to navigate, but Pakistan has a long track record of finding hidden opportunities within such geopolitical challenges.
Afghanistan is the first and most pressing of these challenges. The Biden team has already announced that former president Donald Trump's February 2020 agreement with the Taliban to withdraw all US forces by the end of April 2021 will undergo formal review. There is serious concern that the previous administration was so eager in its pursuit of newsworthy accomplishments ahead of the 2020 US presidential election that it ignored the concerns of Afghan and American officials who regard the treaty under current conditions as the virtual abandonment of Kabul, an irreplaceable ally against extremism.
Mr Biden's national security team includes veterans of the Obama-era struggle to find an effective approach to the Taliban insurgency, which grew in strength before, during and after their previous stints in office. Despite this dismal record, the Biden administration is unlikely to abandon Kabul and it remains to be seen how the Pakistan Army, which is friendly with the Afghan Taliban and hoped to fill the void, will react to this setback.
It is likely that the Taliban will be furious and react violently to what will largely be regarded as an American betrayal. Washington, in turn, will pressure Pakistan's military to restrain the Taliban and push it towards serious negotiations with the government in Kabul. Pakistan will have to weigh whether it fears displeasing the militants or the Americans more. In the past, it has preferred to split the difference, only to find itself pummelled from both sides.
On the other hand, Islamabad can also link its willingness to be helpful to US success in restraining an increasingly assertive use of rhetoric and force from India. Military action by the Modi government has steadily ratcheted up the pressure on Pakistan in recent years, even when the tactical results of "surgical strikes" have been limited.
The US has assisted with de-escalating India-Pakistan tensions at a number of dangerous moments in the past 40 years. This has depended on both America's unmatched technical intelligence capabilities to cut through the fog of war, and the willingness to use its leverage to cajole and push. Washington's leverage with New Delhi is currently at an all-time high, given their deepening strategic co-operation and strong levels of support in India's border disputes with China.
China has been described by those close to Mr Biden's team as America's most important geopolitical challenge. While it is clear that they will not use Mr Trump's superheated, anti-China rhetoric, or attempt to scapegoat Beijing for American failures, it is also clear that the administration is prepared for a tough detente that combines competition with co-operation. They have already signalled that the US will continue to invest heavily in its allies and partners in Asia, including India, to restrain China. And certainly, it will occur to Washington that putting a lid on the India-Pakistan conflict will also free up India's heavily stretched military to that end.
Pakistan’s close military relationship with China potentially puts it in an awkward position. When the US under John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson attempted to punish Pakistan for its ties with China, Islamabad doubled down on the Chinese connection. Fifty years later, it is likely to make the same choice, if forced. But President Biden and his team have established a reputation as pragmatists, and are unlikely to issue such a stark ultimatum, especially when American influence in Pakistan is far weaker than it has been in years.
How might the US increase its influence? Given past experience, arms sales will not return to the levels seen in the Bush years, but close military-to-military contacts, including training and joint exercises, would be something that interest both governments. Support for political, social and economic development in Pakistan, including climate resilience and public health, is likely to continue and even grow.
It is clear that the Biden presidency will have to engage with South Asia, closely and consistently, to advance vital American interests in Afghanistan and China, and that requires bringing Pakistan along. But it is also clear that Pakistan will see far fewer benefits if the Taliban goes back to war against Coalition Forces.
The Pakistan Army in its dialogues with its American counterpart has often stressed that no military solution is possible in Afghanistan. But it is unclear if it has fully accepted that this applies just as surely to the Taliban.
The Army in the past has not only struggled to own its role in the conflict, but to recognise the crucial differences between the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the American presence. It should be clear by now, after 20-plus years, that America's interests are too enduring for it to simply surrender and go home, and that its regional engagement, unlike that of the Soviets, provides a form of security for Pakistan that is irreplaceable. The sooner that these facts are accepted, the sooner Pakistan will be able to build a strong and mutually beneficial relationship not only with Mr Biden, but whoever succeeds him.
Johann Chacko is a writer and South Asia analyst