Pakistan holds the key to whether or not he will be able to do this. Hence his sweet words during the visit

by Khurram Husain

Here’s a decent rule of thumb when dealing with the Americans: the sweeter their words, the steeper their ask. All relations between nation states are transactional; the only thing to wonder is what exactly is being transacted between them.

Since Imran Khan’s recent visit to Washington, D.C. saw warm and pleasant vibes, it is worthwhile to ask about the substance of what was discussed during the visit. The first and foremost thing on the mind of the Trump administration is the desire to see a withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, weeks before the visit, that they want to see an agreement with the Afghan Taliban that would enable such a withdrawal by September. The agreement that the Trump administration seeks is a ceasefire, followed by some sort of power-sharing arrangement between the Taliban and the Afghan government. This is important to achieve in the immediate term, before the end of 2019, since Donald Trump wants to campaign on having delivered on this pledge to effect a withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. Campaign season begins in earnest in February of 2020 when the caucuses get under way, and builds up till July of that year when the Democratic party convention takes place and the party announces its candidate.

Trump will want to show a tangible and visible withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan through these months, perhaps even heaping some ceremony onto the process, and claim success in the 18-year-old war as his signature accomplishment. Pakistan holds the key to whether or not he will be able to do this. Hence his sweet words during the visit.

The power-sharing arrangement will be a little trickier to manage, especially since powerful parties in Afghanistan, most notably India, would like to see such a deal scuttled. At the moment the Taliban have rejected any idea of including representatives from the government in Kabul into the peace talks. But an intra-Afghan dialogue has been kick-started, and one of the big asks that the Trump administration placed on the Pakistani delegation in D.C. was to play a more vigorous role in helping both sides in that dialogue to make progress in arriving at some sort of understanding among themselves. This is why we saw a flurry of headlines about an ‘Intra-Afghan dialogue’ coming out in the Pakistani press in the run-up to the visit. “Islamabad hopeful Taliban will agree to Intra-Afghan dialogue” ran a headline in this paper, for example. “The Afghan peace process has reached a promising but delicate stage. Pakistan will continue to play a role in helping the peace efforts with the expectation that this can soon transition to the next critical stage: an Intra-Afghan dialogue. The international consensus is firmly in favour of this”, the story quoted Pakistan’s permanent representative to UN, Dr Maleeha Lodhi.

The dialogue did take place, supported by track two efforts. In mid-July, days before the D.C. visit, representatives of the Taliban and the Afghan government sat down with each other in Doha and agreed to reduce violence and to refrain from attacks on and around certain targets such as schools and hospitals, bazaars and places of worship. The idea is now to build on this understanding, and pave the way towards a ceasefire followed by an agreement on power sharing.

This is a steep ask for Pakistan to entertain, especially given the timelines. What makes the job trickier still is the role of the ‘spoilers’, but more than that, to ensure that the post withdrawal order is built to last. Moeed Yusuf of the United States Institute for Peace has had a chance to observe the entire process from a very close vantage point. He has written in this paper that Trump’s ambition is not shared by the bureaucracy of the US federal government, particularly the diplomatic corps and the military, where suspicion of Pakistan runs deep. “The view within the system remains that Pakistan needs to be pressured to force greater cooperation on Afghanistan” he writes.

Some might argue that it is precisely such pressure that has persuaded Pakistan to do its part to help bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table in the first place. They might remind us of Trump’s new year tweet, of the South Asia policy of August 2017 (that announcement was what set the ball rolling down the current path in the first place), as well as pressure mounted through international bodies like the Financial Action Task Force and the International Monetary Fund. If progress along the timeline laid down by the Trump administration continues apace, it is possible that pressure through both these bodies could fizzle out.

The challenge for the United States is to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for terrorist groups all over again following the withdrawal. For this reason, there is talk of a continuing counter terrorism presence after combat troops are withdrawn. Pakistan has already given its nod to such a continuing presence, and even hinted its willingness to host elements of such a force.

For Pakistan, the biggest fear is that there might be a repeat of 1990 all over again. The fear is that once they are gone, the Americans will forget all about this region, and Pakistan will once again be left to face the consequences all on its own. The other side of this fear is what happens if the Americans are not able to get all that they want out of the process currently under way. Trump’s smile has saddled Pakistan with a steep ask, and nobody here wants to know what his frown might look like.