Trump’s reliance on Pakistani military to help organise peace talks with Taliban should be a source of worry for responsible regional stakeholders.
Washington has finally come to terms with the Afghan Taliban and its Pakistani backers for the future of US military engagement in Afghanistan. A US-Taliban peace deal is expected to be concluded soon. According to US special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, Washington is now moving “closer to intra-Afghan negotiations that will produce a political roadmap and a permanent ceasefire.”
But should we be cautious about a US-Pakistan consensus on Afghanistan? Will the US-Pakistan deal really translate into peace for Afghanistan? Or, is it giving Pakistan’s military establishment a free rein to find a way to carve up Afghanistan with the Taliban?
Recent developments suggest that Donald Trump’s administration is endorsing Islamabad’s duplicity on Afghanistan and this is irrefutably not leading to peace and stability in the region. Washington must genuinely choose the path to peace by fully engaging with India, Russia, China, and Iran on Afghanistan. Unilaterally cutting a deal with Pakistan will fail severely.
Why the US overlooks Pakistan’s duplicity
It is true that Pakistan holds the key in any Afghan peace talk because of the ISI’s widely acknowledged ties to the Afghan Taliban.
So, Washington continues to embrace Pakistan’s policies in Afghanistan with an ill-advised understanding that it would protect US interests. Senior American officials accept that when Pakistani support becomes “necessary”, Washington “finds a way to overlook Pakistani misdeeds and focus instead on common interests”. They corroborate that in Washington’s relations with Islamabad, there are times when Pakistan’s “duplicity is tacitly welcome by the Americans”(88 Days to Kandahar, Robert L. Grenier).
The history of US-Pakistan relations is full of such examples. In January 2018, Trump tweeted that Pakistan has given “safe haven to the terrorists” the US is hunting in Afghanistan. It has given the US “nothing” but “lies & deceit”.
President Trump’s predecessors failed to take firm actions against Pakistan for its support to terrorism. In their view, Pakistan was Washington’s “strategic ally”. Former President Barrack Obama acknowledged that Washington’s “success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked” to its “partnership” with Pakistan.
Like President Trump, Obama also believed that in the “past”, American leaders before him “too often defined” US relationship with Pakistan “narrowly”. He was of the opinion that those days were “over” and his administration is “committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interests”.
According to US security expert Bruce Riedel, Obama’s administration “made heavy use” of its “warm” relationship with Pakistani military leaders. To serve US interests, in Riedel’s words, Washington even secretly secured “an unprecedented three-year extension” for Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s term in office. (Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the future of the global Jihad, Bruce Riedel)
Now, Washington and Islamabad are once again “bedfellows”.
Ahead of 2020 US elections, President Trump wants a peace deal with the Taliban and a significant troop reduction with an agreed timeline on total US troop withdrawal. So, Pakistan’s military establishment has again become a key arbitrator of Afghanistan’s destiny to the exclusion of the regional actors for the US.
Afghans see the US colluding with Pakistan again
Under the current US-Taliban deal, the Pakistani military and the ISI are using their influence over the Afghan Taliban to ensure a new role for them as a ‘strategic asset’ in Afghanistan.
From the Afghan perspective, Washington has, once again, failed to convince Pakistan to take Afghanistan’s legitimate concerns seriously. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai said, “Afghans want peace” but not a “US-Pakistan deal” on Afghanistan. Strongly condemning President Trump’s remarks during his meeting with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan last month, Karzai asserted that there are “clear signs” that Washington and Islamabad have brokered a deal on Afghanistan. “The Afghan nation wants peace but the US does not” and “peace will come when the US leaves Afghanistan”, said the former president. He urged President Ashraf Ghani’s government to demand Trump to withdraw his troops from Afghanistan.
Karzai has been supportive of Trump administration’s peace negotiations with the Taliban in Qatar. He has publicly endorsed US peace talks, led by Zalmay Khalilzad. However, like many Afghans, he is highly suspicious of the US motives in the region and see the Americans working in collusion with Pakistan. Washington double-dealing on Afghanistan will again give Islamabad the upper hand to influence Afghan foreign policy, in particular, vis-à-vis India.
On the other hand, President Ghani is naively appeasing Islamabad afresh. In a recent interview with TRT World, he thanked Imran Khan, army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and his colleagues for their “change of perspective” regarding Afghanistan.
While Pakistani officials see it as Afghan president’s last attempt to stay in power, Ghani continues to propagate the false notion that after his last visit to Pakistan, Kabul and Islamabad have come to accept that “connectivity” and “the stability of Afghanistan” is in “Pakistan’s interest”, not “a Taliban-run Afghanistan”.
In Afghanistan, despite growing optimism for peace with the Taliban, the road ahead is rocky with no peace in sight. The Pakistan paradox in the US policy is seemingly unsolvable and the current American administration has no desire to change the status quo vis-à-vis Islamabad. Trump administration’s reliance on Pakistani military establishment to help organise peace talks with the Taliban should be a source of worry for responsible regional stakeholders.
Kabul and regional players should be highly suspicious of the US agenda in Afghanistan and the wider region. Afghanistan’s insecurity and instability are already dragging the region into a proxy war. That being the case, regional powers, particularly India, have growing stakes in peace and stability, and should actively get involved in the resolution of the Afghan problem.