Afghanistan crucial to renewing partnership between Pakistan and US

Afghanistan crucial to renewing partnership between Pakistan and US


US President Donald Trump’s letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan, which was received by the latter on Monday, is encouraging to say the least, and is helping dissipate the diplomatic cynicism which was brewing between Islamabad and Washington. Trump’s acknowledgment of Pakistan’s sacrifices in the war on terror and his willingness to renew a partnership with Islamabad seems to be having a positive impact on the people of Pakistan. However, for this atmosphere of goodwill to continue, a lot depends on the developments in Afghanistan. 

Trump wrote to Khan to seek Islamabad’s “assistance and facilitation in achieving a negotiated settlement of the Afghan war” by bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded positively by saying: “Pakistan reiterates its commitment to play a facilitation role in good faith. Peace and stability in Afghanistan remain a shared responsibility.”

The entire exercise shows that the Trump administration cannot overlook the fact that Pakistan is initiating a genuine peace process in war-torn Afghanistan. 

Last month, when Trump unleashed a tirade of accusations during an interview with Fox News -- following it up with several tweets – his actions had puzzled and agitated Pakistan’s ruling elite. He claimed that global terrorist Osama bin Laden was “living in Pakistan right next to the military academy, everybody in Pakistan knew he was there”.

His accusation shocked Pakistan because his predecessor, former president Barack Obama, had concluded after a thorough investigation that the US had “no evidence that Pakistan was aware of his (Laden) presence — that is something that we looked at”.

PM Khan promptly responded to Trump’s tweets by saying that “no Pakistani was involved in 9/11, but Pak decided to participate in US War on Terror. 2. Pakistan suffered 75,000 casualties in this war & over $123 bn was lost to the economy. US aid was a minuscule $20 bn.” 

He added: “Our tribal areas were devastated and millions of people were uprooted from their homes. The war drastically impacted the lives of ordinary Pakistanis.” 

His comments were backed by the Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa who claimed that Pakistan had suffered more than any other country and had paid “the highest military, economic, political and social cost and the world should acknowledge that”.

Perhaps, Trump’s allegations and proclamations increased the mistrust between Pakistan and the US.  Now, the Trump administration is seeking help from all internal and external stakeholders to end the 17-year-old war in Afghanistan.

The entire exercise shows that the Trump administration cannot overlook the fact that Pakistan is initiating a genuine peace process in war-torn Afghanistan.

Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal

On December 4, Zalmay Khalilzad, a US-appointed special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, arrived in Islamabad to chalk out a strategy for substantive peace talks with the Afghan Taliban. From Islamabad, he will travel next to Afghanistan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Belgium, the UAE, and Qatar to coordinate with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and other Afghan stakeholders for “efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table with the Afghan government”.

Keeping these efforts in mind, it seems that the Trump administration is serious about seeking an immediate end to the war in Afghanistan. Otherwise, his critics would declare his Afghanistan policy – which was announced on August 21 last year -- a failure. On the other hand, the Afghan Taliban are in no rush and seem to be gaining confidence with time.

Since July, the direct dialogue between Khalilzad and the Taliban has further increased the group's significance in helping attain peace in Afghanistan. Indeed, direct talks between the US and the Taliban are a rational step, especially since the Taliban control roughly half of Afghanistan's territory. The move, however, also undermines the importance of Ghani’s government.

Washington tacitly accepted the Taliban's three basic demands -- to lift the sanctions against its leaders, to release prisoners, and to recognize the Taliban's office in Qatar. For instance, in November, during the third round of talks between Khalilzad and the Taliban’s representatives in Qatar, Khairullah Khairkhwah, the former Taliban governor of Herat, and Mohammed Fazl, a former Taliban military chief, took part in the dialogue. Both of them were among five senior Taliban members who had been released from the Guantanamo prison in 2014 in exchange for US Sgt Bowe Bergdahl who was captured by the Taliban after walking off his base in Afghanistan, in 2009.

President Ghani constituted a 12-member team -- led by his chief of staff Abdul Salam Rahimi -- to engage the Taliban in the peace negotiations. The Taliban, however, are reluctant to talk with Ghani’s representatives. Instead, they prefer to continue holding peace talks with the US without announcing a ceasefire until all foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan. In this context, both Washington and Kabul may put pressure on Islamabad to convince the Taliban to start a peace dialogue with  the team appointed by Ghani.

The Taliban understand that Ghani is interested in getting reelected. They had already demanded the postponement of next year’s presidential elections and sought the establishment of an interim government under a neutral leadership. Therefore, it seems puzzling that Khalilzad will succeed in reaching a peace deal before the polls. There is a possibility that the current war and peace conundrum will continue in Afghanistan without any tangible outcome. 

While any revival of contact between Islamabad and Washington is encouraging, there’s still a lot to be done to mitigate the level of mistrust between them. Moreover, a renewed partnership between the two countries depends greatly on the Taliban’s response to the US demands. With that in mind, Afghanistan’s future, unfortunately, does not look very promising.   

• Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal is an Islamabad-based analyst and professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University. E-mail: [email protected]

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