WASHINGTON: The White House assured Pakistan on Saturday that President Joe Biden supports a strong and prosperous Pakistan, hours after the US leader stirred a storm by calling the South Asian nuclear nation a dangerous nation.
“The president views a secure and prosperous Pakistan as critical to US interests,” said White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre when asked to comment on Mr Biden’s remarks.
But others were not convinced this latest outburst will help Washington win over any ‘hearts and minds’ in the country that is already witnessing a wave of anti-US sentiment, championed by former PM Imran Khan.
“Strange comment - not the type of thing senior US officials typically say publicly as much as they used to,” said Michael Kugelman, a Pakistan scholar at the Wilson Center, Washington.
Mr Kugelman said he did not know what prompted Mr Biden’s remarks, was but he likely received intel briefs that referred to Pakistan’s churn-bad political polarization, an economic crisis, and resurgent terror. “That, combined with legacy concerns about nukes, may have prompted the comment.”
He said President Biden’s reference to “without any cohesion” was apparently a comment on “current trends playing out in Pakistan more broadly right now, and not to nuclear issues per se.”
The comments, he said, “certainly won’t help improve Pakistani public perceptions of the US, but I doubt it’ll impact bilateral relations in a big way.”
Commenting on Islamabad’s decision to summon the US ambassador, he said: “This is where finally having a formal ambassador back in Islamabad will help.”
He noted that “reaction from Pak officials has also been fairly conciliatory.”
Prof Hassan Abbas of the US National Defence University said to him “Biden’s statement appears to be a slip of the tongue.”
President Biden, he said, was not talking about any weakness in the nuclear command and control in Pakistan as the country has indeed developed a strong system over the last decade or so.“
The US president was “likely hinting at cohesion in the political sphere in Pakistan, given political instability and rising polarisation,” Prof Abbas said. “The increasing use of anti-US rhetoric in PTI political rallies are concerning for Washington,” he added.
Tamanna Salikuddin of the US Institute of Peace, another US think-tank, said President Biden’s remarks were not an official statement nor a change of policy towards Pakistan.
Pointing out that the remarks were made amongst a discussion of global threats, including China and Russia, she said: “His words reflect the underlying US national security concerns regarding Pakistan’s nuclear security amidst continued political and economic instability and terrorist attacks from groups such as TTP.”
Despite improvements and commitments to nuclear security in Pakistan, “lack of stability in other sectors continues to worry US policymakers, especially with the persistent risk of escalation between India and Pakistan,” Ms Salikuddin said.
She, however, acknowledged that the remarks came at an unfortunate moment, when there were improvements in the US-Pakistan bilateral relationship.
She warned that President Biden’s statements will feed into the anti-Americanism “that is politically very popular right now in Pakistan.”
Published in Dawn, October 16th, 2022