Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Islamabad Wednesday for a series of talks aimed at strengthening ties with a crucial ally, while at the same time exerting pressure on civil and military leaders to do more to crackdown on militants on the Pakistan side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
His visit follows a two-day trip to Kabul, where he said American troops would stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014 “if the Afghan people want it.” He also noted that Pakistan would have to apply more pressure on the Taliban making cross-border attacks from its territory.
“Violent extremists are a threat not just to the United States but to Pakistan as well, and indeed the entire civilized world,” he said, adding: “And they have – not with your help – but they have found refuge in some of the most remote refuges of your country. Al Qaeda has worked with extremist allies who have had you as a target and your people as a target.”
In a sign of growing US concern toward instability in Pakistan following the killing of liberal politician Salman Taseer last week – and the subsequent outpouring of praise for the killer from conservative segments of society, Biden noted: “Societies that applaud such actions end up being consumed by those actions. Please accept my deepest condolences and those of President Obama and those of the American people,” according to the AFP.
But Biden also spoke warmly of Pakistan, praising the vision of its founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the professionalism of its Army. He emphasized his personal ties to the country, noting this was his third trip to the country in four years, and that he had helped draft the Biden-Lugar bill (now known as the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill), which gives $7.5 billion of nonmilitary aid to Pakistan. He also sought to clarify what he termed “misconceptions” among some Pakistanis toward America, including the idea that America disrespects Islam or favors regional rival India.
“We wish your success because it’s in our own interests,” he said, before closing his speech with the hope that future generations of Americans would not have to read about militancy and poverty in Pakistan, but instead focus on the success of Pakistani scientists, entrepreneurs, and artists.
Earlier, Biden met with President Asif Ali Zardari, who reiterated calls for the transfer of Predator drone technology to Pakistan and requested increased access for Pakistan to US markets, according to presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar. He later met with Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani.
Biden is also expected to unveil a new package of military, civilian, and intelligence aid, according to APP, Pakistan’s government news agency. The recently conducted Afghanistan and Pakistan annual review, and the outcome of Biden’s talks with Afghan leaders, featured highly on the leaders' agendas.
Biden's visit just in time for Pakistan's political crisis
Biden’s trip comes at a time of heightened instability in the country, following not just the assassination of Mr. Taseer, but a short-lived political crisis which came about when a major coalition partner left the government, leaving it without a majority in parliament.
That crisis was resolved through a deal stuck last Friday that rescinded a hike in petroleum prices – a deal that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said would weaken Pakistan’s already fragile economic base. The price hike had been deeply unpopular in Pakistan, where critics say the government should do more to tax the wealthy.
According to a Western diplomat, behind the scenes, Biden would likely bring a “mixed message of support and motivation to do better.”
“In economic terms, all of these revenue hikes are important. If the government has to print money to finance its growing deficits, that’s a kind of tax, too: it’s a kind of tax on the poor, who pay higher prices but it falls indiscriminately,” says the diplomat, referring to high rates of inflation. If Pakistan fails to increase its tax-to-GDP ratio and support itself better, adds the diplomat, Biden would make clear that the US Congress may take a dim view and that could harm the prospect of future aid.
On the military front, the US has long pressured Pakistan to engage militants in the North Waziristan tribal region on its western border. Pakistani military leaders are adamant that conditions must be right before they enter the area, lest they risk a domino effect that could allow previous gains in neighboring tribal areas to be reversed.
There is some understanding among US civilian leadership of the Pakistani position, says the Western diplomat, but patience is wearing thin among military commanders as the US continues to suffer losses on the Afghan side of the border.