New York: Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, who visits the US from Sunday hoping for a reset in the frayed relations between the one-time close allies, brings a bargaining chip: the Taliban connection that is crucial to a peace deal in Afghanistan.
US President Donald Trump and his administration have taken a harder line towards Pakistan than the predecessors, but now Khan holds Islamabad’s patronage of the Taliban as a key to ending the nearly 18-year Afghanistan War.
The US is in a crucial phase of negotiations with the Taliban on a peace agreement that could lead to the withdrawal of the 15,000 US troops, fulfilling one of Trump’s campaign promises and that will be at the centre of the Trump-Khan talks.
Trump will insist during their talks on Monday that Pakistan pressure its client Taliban to sign a permanent peace deal, a US official briefing reporters about Khan’s visit said on Friday.
And earlier in the week at a seminar in Pakistan, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said: “The convergence in Pakistan and US policies on Afghanistan has rekindled hope for resolution of the protracted Afghan conflict”.
The timing of Khan’s visit is important because the US target date for a peace agreement in Afghanistan is coming up soon. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said in June during a visit to Kabul, “I hope we have a peace deal before September 1, that’s certainly our mission set”.
The talks with the Taliban led by US negotiator Zalmay Khalilazad appear to be in a crucial phase. He told Radio Free Afghanistan earlier this month that there was agreement on four key issues: foreign troop pullout from Afghanistan, a permanent cease-fire, a guarantee that Afghanistan won’t be used for attacks on other countries – in effect barring al-Qaeda, Islamic State and others from its soil – and a dialogue with other Afghans for a political settlement.
That leaves implementing the dialogue part – direct talks between the Afghan government and others to move the deal to a culmination.
Despite the purported advances in the negotiations, a US military personnel was killed last weekend and attacks on Afghanistan security forces and other targets, including educational and health institutions continue, displaying the capacity of both the Taliban and Pakistan to steer the peace process or to wreck it.
Ending the war will bring back home about 15,000 US troops in Afghanistan, stop the annual bleed of about $20 billion on the war, which has claimed about 2,400 American lives.
Having failed so far to create a breakthrough with North Korea and trapped in a brinkmanship with Iran, Trump would see a deal in Afghanistan a political boost as the US gets into election gear.
If the Afghanistan deal goes through, Pakistan is hoping for a broader reset in relations. “It will, therefore, be appropriate to work for broader engagement from Afghanistan to bilateral issues, economic and trade cooperation to peace and stability in South Asia,” Qureshi said.
It will be the third time Pakistan would have won playing the Afghanistan card if that happens. Islamabad got billions of dollars and special treatment in the 1980s when it became the launching pad for US-backed Taliban and international Islamist groups to attack the Soviet forces in Afghanistan.
For the second time, in the aftermath of the 9/11 Pakistan reaped the benefits from the US fight against its former allies. Now, it is trying to take advantage of a deal between the US and its friend-turned-foe-turned friend, the Taliban.
As of now, the deteriorating US-Pakistan relations have reached a nadir. The US has cut off military aid to Pakistan and because of Washington’s interests in countering China, Trump and his foreign policy hawks have tilted towards India.
It was seen in the push for China to permit the UN to place sanctions on Saeed as an international terrorist. And in the aftermath of the Phulwama episode, the US took India’s side condemning the car bomb attack on security personnel and ensured the return of the Indian pilot captured by Pakistan, while keeping the situation from escalating.
The US last year withheld $800 million in military-related payments, the most recent cut being in last September when the US withheld $300 million citing Islamabad’s failure to act decisively to ensure regional stability -a reference to the Afghanistan situation.
Preparing for Khan’s trip, Pakistan arrested Lashkar-e-Tayyiba chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed as a goodwill offering. Trump took credit for it (with a misspoken tweet that Saeed was caught after a ten-year search, although it was more like after pressure over that time).
And before that, Washington had made a similar gesture to Pakistan, adding the Balochistan Liberation Army to the US government’s list of specially designated global terrorists.
During their meeting, Trump will demand that Islamabad free Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi, who helped the US track down Osama Bin Laden to his lair in Abottabad, the official briefing reporters on the visit said.
A US statement announcing the visit said that Trump and Khan will discuss “bringing economic prosperity” and trade and that could be a starting point in the reset. Pakistan is in dire economic straits and received a $6 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund after the US apparently withdrew its objections.
Khan will likely ask for help to stave off further action by the Financial Action Task Force, the global terror financing watchdog, and remove it from the place on its gray list so that access to international finance will not be affected.
The US agenda also mentioned counter-terrorism, defence and energy with the aim of creating “an enduring partnership between our two countries”.
In defence, Pakistan needs spares for its F-16s and other US hardware and its attempts to buy more F-16s have stalled because of Congressional opposition. These could come up in the talks.
On counter-terrorism, attacks by Pakistan-based terrorists on India is likely to be raised by Trump.
Trump has thrashed Pakistan several times on Twitter mentioning al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden or Afghanistan. In November he tweeted: “We no longer pay Pakistan the $billions because they would take our money and do nothing for us, Bin Laden being a prime example. Afghanistan being another.”
However, Trump’s attitudes are mercurial and he is given to effusiveness in both directions. Therefore, he could well heap praise on Khan during and immediately after their encounter.
But keep in mind that after his election in 2016, Trump had praised then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as a “terrific guy” but that overture that didn’t last long.
As for India, Trump’s dealing with Khan has to be seen in the context of the decoupling of India-Pakistan in US South Asia dealings – something that India has long sought and is now a fact.
India, which has cautioned at the UN Security Council against a hasty settlement with the Taliban, has been shut out of the peace negotiations in which even Germany has been involved, besides Qatar, Russia and China that are in the neighbourhood.
But it has to be seen in the context of New Delhi not having been a direct player in Afghanistan – other than as an aid giver – and any US deal with Taliban and Pakistan on Afghanistan being separate from US-India relations.
But the hope for India is that the US ensures that having gotten back its strategic depth and freed up its terror-support resources on its north-west, Pakistan does not divert terrorists towards India.
IANS/ Arul Louis