As was being expected, the focus of discussion during Prime Minister Imran Khan’s maiden three-day visit to the United States remained on finding a way for ending the Afghan conflict. It is unclear show ever, what Washington sought and Islamabad promised to help extricate America from its longest war in history in Afghanistan.
The invitation for the visit was extended by no less a person than President Trump. This meant that the US had a specific purpose for arranging his visit to the White House and providing him the rare opportunity to meet Trump. There may be quite a few reasons for extending the invitation to Imran Khan, but none could have been more important for the US than seeking Pakistan’s help to persuade the Afghan Taliban to show enough flexibility for America to fashion a face-saving exit from the intractable Afghan conflict.
General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the chief of army staff, was accompanying Prime Minister Imran Khan during the visit to the US. This reinforced the importance of the trip. Increasingly, governments and countries interested in resolving disputes with Pakistan and forging cooperation with it make it a point to hold meetings with both the civil and military leader in view of the political realities in the country. It was important for the US to engage with Pakistan’s elected prime minister without losing sight of the power wielded by the powerful military establishment.
It appears that the US has too great expectations from Pakistan’s a role in ending the Afghan through its influence with the Taliban. Pakistan, on the other hand, is aware of its limitations in the context of Afghanistan. This was the reason Imran Khan was modest in pointing out that his country would urge the Taliban to resolve the Afghan issue through talks with not only the US but also the government in Kabul.
President Trump was in his elements when he praised Pakistan, its people and Imran Khan to the hilt. It almost looked unreal when he remarked that Pakistan never lied. It sounded like withdrawing his previous condemnation of Islamabad for deceitful behaviour it that it took American money and did act against the enemies of the US. In particular, Mr Trump acknowledged that Pakistan was helping the US a lot on Afghanistan and that this had led to improved relations between the two former allies.
In a subsequent statement the White House added that Pakistan was facilitating the Afghan peace process, but the US was asking Islamabad to do even more to this end. This was the repeat of the familiar US demand for Pakistan to do more, though of late Islamabad has been boldly telling Washington and other Western capitals that it was now their turn to do more as Pakistan had done enough and rendered incomparable sacrifices in the war against terrorism in terms of human and material losses.
Controversy cannot be far off when President Trump is talking to the press. His tendency to speak impromptu and because making unverifiable claims ensures that. He claimed that the US could end the Afghan war in a week to 10 days, but he wasn’t taking up this option as it would cause 10 million deaths and wipe off Afghanistan from the map of the world. Though he didn’t mention the use of nuclear weapons, it was obvious that he was referring to their use. This, justifiably caused outrage in Afghanistan and even the Kabul government, dependent on the US for military and economic assistance, reacted sharply by asking Trump to clarify his statement and reminding that the Afghan people won’t let others determine their future.
The Taliban were even tougher in condemning Trump’s threat and pointing out that the US and its Nato allies had failed to win a military victory in the 18-year war. The Taliban statement insisted that the US was facing defeat just like previous invaders of the land from the Mongols to the British and the Soviets. The Taliban advised the members and supporters of the Afghan government to keep in mind the insulting remarks by the US president and take an honourable position on the issue of presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan.
Just like his irresponsible statement on Afghanistan, Trump made an equally ridiculous claim when he said Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him to mediate on the Kashmir issue with Pakistan. As expected, India promptly denied Trump’s claim, which was unbelievable considering New Delhi’s known stand that there was no role for third party in the context of the Kashmir issue as it was bilateral and would have to be resolved by the two countries. That should be the end of Trump’s ambition to play the role of a mediator between India and Pakistan even though Pakistan was keen for the US to mediate on Kashmir.
The question now is what can Pakistan do to make the ongoing Taliban-US peace talks in Qatar result-oriented and pave the way for meaningful intra-Afghan dialogue. The Qatar talks have continued for about a year and both sides have claimed some progress in the seven rounds of negotiations. Three sessions of intra-Afghan dialogue too have been held, twice in Moscow and once in Doha. The latest round in July in Doha was sponsored by Qatar and Germany. More such meetings are likely to be held hopefully with participation of Afghan government officials with whom Taliban have refused to interact directly until now. Pakistan would be expected to facilitate direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, although such requests and proposals by Islamabad to-date have been rebuffed by the Taliban.
The demand for a permanent ceasefire made by the US and backed by China, Russia and Pakistan too has been rejected by the Taliban, who insist that they would consider it once the US-led foreign forces start withdrawing from Afghanistan as a result of a peace agreement. In fact, Taliban consider all other issues being discussed by their delegation and the Americans led by Zalmay Khalilzad as secondary and subject to acceptance of their primary demand that the occupation of Afghanistan must end through withdrawal of foreign troops.
Pakistan must be aware that the mercurial Mr Trump, now praising it for its help in facilitating the Afghan peace process, could turn against it if the Taliban refuse to make concessions in the talks and the negotiations end in failure. Prime Minister Imran Khan has tried to play down expectations attached to Islamabad’s role by reminding that the task of arranging the peace talks and making progress isn’t going to be easy.