decent rule of thumb when dealing with the Americans: the sweeter their words,
the steeper their ask. All relations between nation states are transactional;
the only thing to wonder is what exactly is being transacted between them.
Khan’s recent visit to Washington, D.C. saw warm and pleasant vibes, it is
worthwhile to ask about the substance of what was discussed during the visit.
The first and foremost thing on the mind of the Trump administration is the
desire to see a withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Secretary of
State Mike Pompeo said, weeks before the visit, that they want to see an
agreement with the Afghan Taliban that would enable such a withdrawal by
September of this year.
agreement that the Trump administration seeks is a ceasefire, followed by some
sort of power-sharing arrangement between the Taliban and the Afghan
government. This is important to achieve in the immediate term, before the end
of the year 2019, since Donald Trump wants to campaign on having delivered on
this pledge to effect a withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. Campaign
season begins in earnest in February of 2020 when the caucuses get under way,
and builds up till July of that year when the Democratic party convention takes
place and the party announces its candidate.
want to show a tangible and visible withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan
through these months, perhaps even heaping some ceremony onto the process, and
claim success in the 18-year-old war as his signature accomplishment. Pakistan
holds the key to whether or not he will be able to do this. Hence his sweet
words during the visit.
power-sharing arrangement will be a little trickier to manage, especially since
powerful parties in Afghanistan, most notably India, would like to see such a
deal scuttled. At the moment the Taliban have rejected any idea of including
representatives from the government in Kabul into the peace talks. But an
intra-Afghan dialogue has been kick-started, and one of the big asks that the
Trump administration placed on the Pakistani delegation in D.C. was to play a more
vigorous role in helping both sides in that dialogue to make progress in
arriving at some sort of understanding among themselves.
This is why
we saw a flurry of headlines about an ‘intra-Afghan dialogue’ coming out in the
Pakistani press in the run-up to the visit. “Islamabad hopeful Taliban will
agree to intra-Afghan dialogue” ran a headline in this paper, for example. “The
Afghan peace process has reached a promising but delicate stage. Pakistan will
continue to play a role in helping the peace efforts with the expectation that
this can soon transition to the next critical stage: an intra-Afghan dialogue.
The international consensus is firmly in favour of this”, the story quoted
Pakistan’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Dr Maleeha Lodhi.
dialogue did take place, supported by track two efforts. In mid-July, days
before the D.C. visit, representatives of the Taliban and the Afghan government
sat down with each other in Doha and agreed to reduce violence and to refrain
from attacks on and around certain targets such as schools and hospitals,
bazaars and places of worship, among others. The idea is now to build on this
understanding, and pave the way towards a ceasefire followed by an agreement on
This is a
steep ask for Pakistan to entertain, especially given the timelines. What makes
the job trickier still is the role of the ‘spoilers’, but more than that, to
ensure that the post withdrawal order is built to last. Moeed Yusuf of the
United States Institute for Peace has had a chance to observe the entire
process from a very close vantage point. He has written in this paper that
Trump’s ambition is not shared by the bureaucracy of the US federal government,
particularly the diplomatic corps and the military, where suspicion of Pakistan
runs deep. “The view within the system remains that Pakistan needs to be
pressured to force greater cooperation on Afghanistan” he wrote in these pages
a few days ago.
argue that it is precisely such pressure that has persuaded Pakistan to do its
part to help bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table in the first
place. They might remind us of Trump’s new year tweet, of the South Asia policy
of August 2017 (that announcement was what set the ball rolling down the
current path in the first place), as well as pressure mounted through
international bodies like the Financial Action Task Force and the International
Monetary Fund. If progress along the timeline laid down by the Trump
administration continues apace, it is possible that pressure through both these
bodies could fizzle out.
challenge for the United States — whether the administration or the wider
system driving the process — is to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven
for terrorist groups all over again following the withdrawal. For this reason,
there is talk of a continuing counterterrorism presence after combat troops are
withdrawn. Pakistan has already given its nod to such a continuing presence,
and even hinted its willingness to host certain elements of such a force.
Pakistan, the biggest fear is that there might be a repeat of 1990 all over
again. The fear is that once they are gone, the Americans will forget all about
this region (their foreign policy already lays limited stakes in South Asia beyond
Afghanistan), and Pakistan will once again be left to face the consequences all
on its own. The other side of this fear is what happens if the Americans are
not able to get all that they want out of the process currently under way.
Trump’s smile has saddled Pakistan with a steep ask, and nobody here wants to
know what his frown might look like if things don’t work out as expected.
Husain is a member of staff.
Source: The Dawn, Pakistan