Despite the Indian media’s assumptions of a US strategic volte-face, Islamabad would do well to acknowledge that the Trump administration still views its relations with Pakistan largely through the prism of Afghanistan. President Donald Trump’s desire for an early end to America’s longest war is the principal reason for his invitation to Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Pakistan has played a key role in facilitating the Afghan peace process and the US-Taliban talks. These have reportedly made encouraging progress over the past few months. An agreement on the withdrawal of US-Nato troops has evidently been reached between the US and the Afghan Taliban, although no timetable for the withdrawal has been finalised. The Taliban, for their part, have agreed to prevent terrorism against the US and third countries from Afghan territory post a settlement. It is unclear if the US will ask, as it did earlier, to leave behind a “small” counterterrorism force in Afghanistan. Two weeks ago, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in Kabul that “the time for peace has come”. He hoped for a political settlement by September 1.
While the troop withdrawal and counterterrorism agreements are ready, the US special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, has so far insisted on resolving two other issues simultaneously: an intra-Afghan dialogue between the Taliban and Kabul government and a general ceasefire, tweeting that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. US withdrawal from Afghanistan could be delayed if the US insists on the conclusion of intra-Afghan negotiations before troop withdrawals commence.
The Taliban have rejected direct talks with the Ashraf Ghani government (which they consider a US puppet), but are willing to engage with all Afghans, including members of the government in their personal capacity. An informal dialogue process was attempted in several locales and finally took place last month in Doha coterminously with the separate US-Taliban talks.
This two-day intra-Afghan session issued a positive declaration expressing the desire of all Afghan parties and groups to reduce civilian casualties “to zero” and preserve Afghanistan’s unity and sovereignty and Islamic principles.
An Afghan political settlement will not be durable unless it is supported by regional powers and Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours Pakistan and Iran. The US special envoy adroitly commenced a trilateral US-Russia-China dialogue to build regional consensus. Indeed, Afghanistan is one place where the three major powers, despite their global rivalry, may have a convergent interest in fighting terrorism and promoting stability.
At their last meeting in Beijing, Pakistan was invited to join the three great powers to expand regional support for an Afghan peace settlement. Iran was reportedly also invited to the Beijing consultations but refused to participate. Iran has close traditional relations with the Tajiks, Hazaras and Shias, and new relations with some hard-line Taliban commanders. If US-Iran tensions escalate, Tehran could severely disrupt the Afghan peace process.
Despite its bold and continuing facilitation of the US-Taliban talks, until now, Pakistan has not secured any tangible reciprocity from the US (apart from the designation of the BLA as a terrorist entity). On the contrary, until recently, Washington maintained economic pressure on Pakistan via the IMF and FATF, and demanded action against the leaders of the proscribed pro-Kashmiri organisations (LeT and JeM) which Pakistan has taken.
In the Washington talks, the US is likely to ask Pakistan to “do more” to persuade the Taliban to negotiate with Kabul and accept a ceasefire. It may also go beyond Afghanistan to seek assurances regarding the Kashmir insurgency, nuclear and missile issues and relations with Iran.
Pakistan would do well to avoid assuming additional obligations on the western or eastern front. Over-promising and under-delivering could reopen the mistrust and acrimony that has dogged Pakistan-US ties since at least 2005.
Instead, Pakistan should expect that its strong support to the desired peace process will finally yield some gestures of US support. The US could take action against the TTP and BLA; help in monitoring and fencing the Pakistan-Afghanistan border; prelease blocked CSF monies; and promote Afghan refugee repatriation. Washington could adopt more even-handed policies towards Pakistan and India. Further, the US administration could encourage its corporations and private equity firms to actively consider investment in Pakistan to revive growth and unleash its vast economic potential.
By arrangement with Dawn...