Islamabad’s objections notwithstanding, President Biden had ample reason to term Pakistan the most dangerous country
In a week of mixed messaging and results in the United States (US) – Pakistan relationship, the description of Pakistan as the most dangerous country in the world by President Joe Biden seems to have rankled Islamabad the most. That there was a whole lot of truth contained in Biden’s short statement, and that it was made at a significant juncture just when it had begun to appear to Islamabad that ties with the US were finally on the mend, caused it to be even less palatable for Pakistan. The resolution that has been introduced in the US Congress urging President Biden to recognize the violence committed by the Pakistani armed forces in Bangladesh in 1971 as genocide appears to have given Pakistan further cause to fret. The ruffled feathers, however, would have been assuaged somewhat later in the week with the US Congress on 19 October approving the F-16 sustainment package that Pakistan has been requesting for long. Questions about where the US – Pakistan relationship was headed would, nevertheless, have remained.
Biden’s remarks about Pakistan were made at a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Reception, when the President was talking about US foreign policy with regard to China and Russia and was in the midst of berating both countries. A White House press release of his remarks at the Democratic Party event quoted Biden as saying, “This is a guy (Chinese President Xi Jinping) who understands what he wants but has an enormous, enormous array of problems. How do we handle that? How do we handle that relative to what’s going on in Russia? And what I think is maybe one of the most dangerous nations in the world: Pakistan. Nuclear weapons without any cohesion…”. He went on to add that he foresaw enormous opportunities for the US to change the dynamic in the second quarter of the 21st century. He said, “So, folks, there's a lot going on. A lot going on. But there’s also enormous opportunities for the United States to change the dynamic in the second quarter of the 21st century”.
It was not as though Biden was speaking at a government or bilateral event, nor did it come across as though his remarks on Pakistan formed part of a prepared speech. Yet, they shook Pakistan so much, possibly because people in positions of power in Islamabad and Rawalpindi recognized the truth behind the US President’s assertion, that all and sundry burst out expressing indignation. Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on 15 October alleged that Biden’s statement was factually incorrect and misleading. He said, “Over the past decades, Pakistan has proven to be a most responsible nuclear State, wherein its nuclear programme is managed through a technically sound and foolproof command and control system”. He added that Pakistan had also consistently demonstrated responsible stewardship of its nuclear-weapons capability, marked by a very strong commitment to global standards, including those of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on non-proliferation, safety, and security. Sharif further said that Pakistan and the US had a long history of a friendly and mutually beneficial relationship, and he advised that “At a time, when the world is confronted by huge global challenges, it is critically important that genuine and durable efforts are made to recognize the real potential of the Pakistan-US relationship, while avoiding unnecessary comments”. Sharif also conveyed Pakistan’s “sincere desire to cooperate with the US to promote regional peace and security”.
The Pakistani Prime Minister further opined that the real threat to international peace and security was posed by ultra-nationalism, violation of human rights in regions that are struggling against illegal occupation, violation of global norms by some States, repeated nuclear security incidents and arms race among leading nuclear weapon States, and introduction of new security constructs that disturb the regional balance. Taking to his official Twitter account, Sharif separately wrote, “Let me reiterate unequivocally: Pakistan is a responsible nuclear State and we are proud that our nuclear assets have the best safeguards as per IAEA requirements. We take these safety measures with the utmost seriousness. Let no one have any doubts".
Shehbaz Sharif’s elder brother and mentor, the three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has been living in the United Kingdom (UK) for the past several years, also stepped in to defend his country’s credibility. He tweeted, “Pakistan is a responsible nuclear State that is perfectly capable of safeguarding its national interest whilst respecting international law and practices. Our nuclear program is in no way a threat to any country. Like all independent States”.
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari waded into the conversation at a press conference, where he insisted that Pakistan was following global standards. He said, “I am surprised by the remarks of President Biden. I believe this is exactly the sort of misunderstanding that is created when there is a lack of engagement”. On Pakistan’s track record, he claimed that “As far as the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear assets are concerned, we meet all, each and every international standard in accordance with the International Atomic Energy Agency”. Adding that he had discussed the issue of Biden’s statement with Prime Minister Sharif, Bilawal informed that “We have summoned the Ambassador of the United States to Pakistan Donald Blome to the Foreign Office of Pakistan for an official demarche”.
Subsequently, Pakistan’s acting Foreign Secretary Jauhar Saleem delivered the “strong” demarche to the US Ambassador. The Foreign Ministry informed that the demarche had conveyed that Biden’s remarks were not based on ground reality or facts, and that Pakistan was a responsible nuclear State. It communicated Pakistan’s disappointment and concern over the remarks, and suggested to the US that “It was essential to maintain the positive trajectory of Pakistan-US relations and the close cooperation between the two sides to build regional and global peace”.
The mainstream opposition parties in Pakistan were not to be left behind, and they too joined the chorus against Biden’s seemingly off-the-cuff comments. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party leader and former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who had blamed the US for his ouster as PM in April, expectedly came down heavily upon both Washington and the Shehbaz Sharif government. Accusing the Sharif government of destroying the economy and compromising the security of the country, Khan, in a series of tweets said that “I have 2 Qs on this: 1. On what info has @POTUS reached this unwarranted conclusion on our nuclear capability when, having been PM, I know we have one of the most secure nuclear command & control systems. 2. Unlike the US which has been involved in wars across the world, when has Pakistan shown aggression esp post-nuclearisation?” He added, “Equally imp, this Biden statement shows total failure of the Imported govt’s foreign policy & its claims of ‘reset of relations with US’? Is this the ‘reset’? This govt has broken all records for incompetence”.
For Pakistan’s Islamist parties, the opportunity to show down the US was always going to be too tempting to let pass. The Express Tribune newspaper reported that Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) chief Sirajul Haq had demanded the expulsion of the US Ambassador to Islamabad until such time as the US tendered an apology for Biden’s remarks. Describing both Imran Khan’s PTI and the ruling Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) as pawns of the international establishment, Haq asserted that the JeI, with its emphasis on religious values, was Pakistan’s only hope for salvation.
Perhaps the most significant reaction to Biden’s remarks came chronologically the last. After a corps commander’s conference in Rawalpindi that was presided over by Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the Army’s media arm, issued a statement that said that “The forum reposed full confidence in Pakistan’s robust nuclear command and control structure and security arrangements related to country’s strategic assets”. As a responsible nuclear weapon State, the ISPR claimed, Pakistan had taken all measures necessary to strengthen its nuclear security regime on a par with international best practices. That even the powerful Pakistani Army felt the need to join all and sundry in issuing such a statement was only a measure of how hard Biden’s spur-of-the-moment comments had actually hit the country.
The Pakistani media also had a lot to say about Biden’s comments. As the reputed Pakistani daily Dawn saw it, perpetual domestic crises and chaos in the political sphere presented an image of weakness that encouraged others to make unflattering comments about Pakistan. From what he said, Biden appeared to have been referring to this broader absence of cohesion within the Pakistani State, rather than just the narrow aspect of weapons. Dawn argued that even if Biden’s remarks were actually made off-the-cuff, their inclusion in an official White House transcript took them to another level altogether. Biden had put the severity of the problem that Pakistan presented in the same league as the seriously dangerous issues of today such as Russia and China. In any event, the American President’s statement indicated anything but core warmth towards Pakistan.
While the White House, responding to the furore that broke in Pakistan over Biden’s comments, did later grudgingly express more confidence in the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal than Biden had done, it also insisted that what the President had said was nothing new. In response to a question during a press briefing on 14 October, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre stressed, “So that is something (about what his views have) been on Pakistan, more specifically he’s made those comments before, so that is nothing new — what you heard from him last night”. While defending Biden’s remarks, the Press Secretary added that Biden believed in a secure and prosperous Pakistan.
The unflattering and worrying description of Pakistan by a serving US President was remarkable for its candidness, its out-of-context delivery, and its appearance in Biden’s chain of thoughts as a natural continuation or corollary to much of the bad that he saw going down presently in other parts of the world. It is not as though Pakistan would have otherwise been playing on Biden’s mind, as his comments came only two days after the release of the US’ 48-page National Security Strategy, a document that makes no reference to Pakistan, showing how little the country actually matters to the US. It is just that Pakistan, through what it has gone about doing relentlessly decade after decade, has succeeded in creating such a dim and indelible image of itself that it almost automatically springs to mind even while the topic under discussing pertains to other unrelated dangerous situations and countries.
Whether it be the proliferation of nuclear technology that Pakistan had its fingers deep in through its infamous A.Q. Khan network right through the 1980s and 1990s, or the widespread and blatant export through the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s of terrorism to the world to the extent that the dreaded Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden was found living in luxury just outside the perimeter fence of Pakistan’s military academy, to the several instances over the years when Islamist extremists have threatened to overrun the Pakistani State and take control of the country’s nuclear buttons, often with the tacit support of ‘fringe elements’ from the Army, Pakistan has, in fact, given Biden ample grounds to make the statement that he did late last week.