What Trump’s latest tirade against Pakistan means for Washington’s plans in Afghanistan.
“Pakistan has done much more for peace in Afghanistan than any other country,” said Pakistan’s army chief a few days ago. That was an apparent response to a recent statement by U.S. President Donald Trump, in which he alleged that Pakistan had done nothing for Washington to achieve its security objectives in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan also took to Twitter to respond to Trump’s recent tirade against Islamabad: “Instead of making Pakistan a scapegoat for their failures, the US should do a serious assessment of why, despite 140,000 NATO troops plus 250,000 Afghan troops & reportedly $1 trillion spent on war in Afghanistan, the Taliban today are stronger than before,” said Khan in a tweet.
One can argue whether Trump’s statement regarding Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan was a policy statement or just a casual response to a question during an interview. What remains clear is this: Trump’s continued antagonism against Pakistan is not going to help Washington in achieving its security objectives in Afghanistan.
Regardless of why Trump may have said what he did, the timing of the statement could not have been any worse. The statement’s impact was also noted in Washington’s official circles, which underscores that various governmental institutions in the United States do not endorse the way Trump has taken on Pakistan. After Trump’s remark, the Pentagon in a statement said that “there’s been no change to our military-to-military relationship with Pakistan” and Islamabad remains “vital to our South Asia strategy and including the facilitation of a peace process that would lead to a stable and peaceful Afghanistan.”
Arguably, the current leadership in the White House expects nothing less than Pakistan’s complete cooperation in Afghanistan, which includes Islamabad downgrading its ties with the Afghan Taliban if the group does not come to the negotiating table and assisting Washington in propping up its political and military position in the country. Anyone who follows Afghanistan’s political and security landscape understands that Pakistan does not have the capacity to deliver on Washington’s above-mentioned demands, nor should the country be expected to force the Taliban into surrender.
Afghanistan’s current security and political landscape is not such that one country alone controls or can influence it. Afghanistan is a deeply divided country, with every regional state developing individual pockets of influence. Understandably, at this juncture, Pakistan has much to lose by squandering its relationship with the Taliban by forcing the group into negotiations: Islamabad doesn’t want to live with a group next door that considers the Pakistani state an enemy. By now, it has become clear that any peace deal or future governing structure in Afghanistan cannot become successful unless the Taliban support it or join it completely.
For some years now, Islamabad has made efforts to convince segments of the Taliban leadership that reconciliation and negotiation is the way forward in the country. Beyond this, Pakistan doesn’t have any control over the group. The Taliban operate as an independent organization and arguably wouldn’t take dictations from any regional state, including Pakistan. It should also be understood that the Afghan Taliban’s power base is driven by the group’s continued insurgent campaign. There is no convincing study to assess whether the organization’s commanders or foot soldiers are interested in simply laying down their weapons in order to submit to the country’s constitution.
Moreover, arguably, the group wouldn’t want to become part of any negotiation process if the former is being seen as operating from a position of weakness. That’s one of the reasons why, while the Taliban leadership is talking to everyone including China, Russia, and the United States, the group has not given up its insurgency campaign. By keeping up the fighting, the group continues to demonstrate that it — not the Afghan government nor the international forces — is in control of the peace process. In this context, expecting Pakistan to deliver the Taliban is ludicrous.
From Washington’s point of view, it’s absurd to criticize Pakistan while expecting Islamabad’s support for a direct line of communication with the Taliban. The newly appointed American special representative for Afghan peace and reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been talking about a timeline to conclude the negotiation process with the Afghan Taliban and perhaps wrap up Washington’s military operation in the country. For some weeks, there have been consistent efforts on the part of the United States to directly engage the leadership of the Taliban. With the idea of engaging the Taliban directly by putting all conditions on the negotiation table, including the withdrawal of U.S. forces, Washington cannot subtract Pakistan’s role when it comes to finalizing any deal in Afghanistan. While Pakistan may not be able to bring the Taliban leadership to the negotiation table, the country would still remain vital when it comes concluding any deal with the group.
Historically, Pakistan and the United States have continued their policy of criticizing each other for their mutual failures to meet each other’s expectations. However, before the Trump’s administration we had not seen the breakup of cooperation in some strategic areas, such as long-established channels to keep military-to-military ties alive regardless of political tensions. For instance, Trump’s recent decision to cut a military training program with Pakistan doesn’t help serve Washington’s interests either in Pakistan or in Afghanistan. This has also been noted in U.S. policy circles: given the nature of Islamabad and Washington’s relationship, military-to-military ties have always retained primacy when it comes to the strategic nature of the bilateral relationship.
Both countries’ individual interests in Afghanistan are best served if it becomes politically stable. Washington needs Pakistan more than ever if the former is to successfully conclude a peace deal in Afghanistan. Tactful communication and open engagement on the diplomatic and military fronts can only help Washington secure Islamabad’s support in Afghanistan. Pakistan may not have the capacity to strike a deal in Afghanistan on its own, but the country still has significant influence to frustrate U.S. policy in Afghanistan.