Fragile Pakistan-US relations crucial to ending Afghan conflict
Pakistan’s relationship with the US has seen a series of highs and lows since the start of the war on terror. Islamabad’s decision to support the US-led war in Afghanistan came with significant consequences for the country’s national security — there was a surge in terrorist incidents and eventually military action had to be taken to neutralize these terrorist outfits and clear their areas of control.
Meanwhile, within Afghanistan, the influence of the Taliban has been steadily on the rise for several years now, with a recent report indicating it controlled just under half of the country. This situation has contributed to a sense of distrust between Pakistan and the US, with the latter repeatedly accusing Islamabad of providing the Afghan Taliban with safe havens. And, at the start of this year, things took a turn for the worse as US President Donald Trump went on a tirade against Pakistan, canceling US security aid while his administration considered taking unilateral steps in areas where Washington’s and Islamabad’s interests clashed.
This was the state of bilateral affairs when the changing of the guard took place in Pakistan following the elections of July 25 this year. Both sides attempted to make a new start and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went public with a pledge to reset ties with Pakistan. As a gesture of support for US-Taliban peace talks, Pakistan released Mullah Baradar, the former deputy to Taliban leader Mullah Omar. This development suggested that the US is now actively seeking an end to the hostilities in Afghanistan, and has finally accepted that there remains no military solution to the conflict.
This brief positivity in bilateral ties was disrupted by a Trump interview and subsequent Twitter polemic accusing Pakistan of taking US money and not doing anything in return. This was followed by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s exceptionally bold and scathing quid pro quo response, accusing the US of being ungrateful for the sacrifices of Pakistan in the war against terror. This episode made it evident that, although the strategic outlook of both sides on Afghanistan had moved closer, there still remains significant hurdles for any meaningful US-Pakistan rapprochement that could further the goal of a political settlement to the Afghan conflict.
Although the strategic outlook of both sides on Afghanistan had moved closer, there still remains significant hurdles for any meaningful US-Pakistan rapprochement that could further the goal of a political settlement to the Afghan conflict.
Interestingly, Khan was not the only person to respond to Trump, as he was fully backed by the Army Chief of Staff Gen. Qamar Bajwa, who issued a sharp rejection in his own personal capacity. This amounted to a well-coordinated and synchronized rejoinder to the American administration from the most powerful stakeholders within Pakistan. The joint stand by Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership further confirmed the notion that their internal relationship is characterized by a high degree of respect and trust, with the civilian side for the first time in the last 10 years fully cognizant of the military’s concerns regarding national security.
This sharp downturn in the Pakistan-US relationship was followed by the unexpected news of Trump’s letter to Khan, in which he seemingly backed off from his previous hostile position, while requesting Pakistan facilitate a negotiated end to the Afghan war and, critically, also acknowledging the costs incurred by both countries in this war. The sharp reversal in the sentiments of the president indicated a realization within the US administration that the traditional strategy of pitching civilians against the military in Pakistan would not work this time, since now it is the civilian side taking the initiative on foreign policy, but with the full support of the military top brass.
Even as the Pakistani side acknowledged the receipt of Trump’s letter and its content, officials continued to talk tough, with the Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari advising US special representative Zalmay Khalilzad to come to Islamabad with a “less arrogant and hostile mindset.” This tweet also suggested that the first interactions between Khalilzad with the Pakistani leadership had not been sufficiently pleasant and that, since the tone of the US president had changed, he should follow suit. This was the state of affairs in which Khalilzad’s most recent visit took place.
It appears that both sides now accept the fact that they need the other in order to achieve their respective strategic objectives within Afghanistan, which for now lies in a political settlement and the departure of international troops. Differences remain regarding the modalities of this political bargain.
Reports of the presence of a Taliban delegation within Islamabad during Khalilzad's visit indicate Pakistan’s willingness to coordinate this attempt at a political resolution through exerting its influence on the Taliban leadership. On the other hand, Khalilzad has tried to address Pakistan’s concerns by assuring that the US is not trying to achieve a resolution of the conflict that undermines Pakistan’s interests. Yet the way forward to a joint political end goal in Afghanistan can only be paved through continuous engagement between the two sides, supported by confidence-building measures to rehabilitate the loss of trust in bilateral ties.
— Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Twitter: @UmarKarim89