Senior U.S. officials undertook yet another trip to Pakistan in an effort to repair the disconnection between Washington and Islamabad concerning the 17-year-old war in Afghanistan. Both sides have acknowledged that the brief trip by top American diplomatic and military officials to Islamabad has kicked off a process to ‘reset’ the countries’ increasingly troubled bilateral relationship. The fact that both Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government and U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration came to power with similar populist agendas suggests that there are greater chances they can move beyond the impasse that has long beleaguered U.S.-Pakistani relations. Despite the fact that there are new administrations in both capitals, the underlying issues remain the same; both sides must appreciate the constraints and imperatives of the other.
Seeking a Fresh Start
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford were in Islamabad for a five-hour trip on Sept. 5. Pompeo and Dunford met with Khan, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Lt. Gen. Naveed Mukhtar, and other senior officials. Neither side divulged much in the way of details, but there seems to be a consensus that there was a need for a fresh start. What was noteworthy was that the American delegation did not have separate meetings with the civilian and military leaderships.
This is understandable considering that Pakistan, for the first time, has a government that is not only democratically elected but also closely aligned with the military-led establishment. This should not be mistaken for harmony in civil-military relations, however. The Khan administration has been in office for just under a month and a lot can happen during its five-year term that could place it at odds with the country’s powerful security establishment. For now, however, its close alignment with the country’s armed forces and the center-right nationalist character of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party suggest that Islamabad will likely drive a hard bargain with Washington on Afghanistan.
Pakistan is looking for a more strategic relationship with the United States — one that is not centered on Afghanistan and security in South Asia but rather prioritizes its broader national interests. Islamabad, however, is well aware that it must consider Washington’s priority of ending the longest war in American history. After all, the Pakistanis need at least $12 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and need the Americans to play ball in order to secure the financial bailout. Therefore, needing Washington as an ally on many fronts, Islamabad has no choice but to work with the United States in seeking closure to the war in Afghanistan.
In addition, it is also in Pakistan’s interest to see an end to the war in Afghanistan, which has had a devastating effect on the Pakistani political economy and society. But it is much more of a priority for the Americans who need two core things from Pakistan and fast. First, Islamabad must crack down on Afghanistan’s Taliban and other insurgent elements using its territory as a springboard for their operations in Afghanistan. Second, Washington wants Islamabad to exert greater influence in facilitating negotiations with the Afghan jihadist movement.
Pakistan’s unwillingness and/or inability to fulfill these two demands have been at the center of the U.S.-Pakistani disagreement going back to the days of the George W. Bush administration. The question is why a nation otherwise in need of U.S. goodwill for its own well-being would defy Washington. From Pakistan’s perspective, the United States will one day leave Afghanistan and Islamabad will have to deal with the vacuum left behind. Moreover, the Taliban are a cross-border reality the Pakistanis will have to live with for generations to come and irrespective of U.S. policy towards the region.
Of course, there is also the matter of Pakistan’s decades-old quest for a friendly government on its western flank, especially as it shares its eastern border with its historic adversary, India. The problem is that Pakistan’s natural allies in Afghanistan are Pashtuns, and the Taliban represent the single most organized force among the country’s majority ethnic community – if not the country itself. All countries seek strategic depth but in Pakistan’s case, it ironically cultivated proxies that challenge Islamabad’s own religious-political narrative, which has led to Talibanization on its side of the border. Put differently, for Pakistan, there are no good alternatives – at least not for a long time to come.
As the United States enters its 18th year of war in Afghanistan, senior military strategists at the Pentagon and top national security officials at the White House have concluded that the only way to end the war is to reach a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. But how does one proceed with negotiations with the Taliban? The jihadist movement does not wish to merely enter into a power-sharing arrangement with the Afghan state; it seeks to reconfigure the polity that the international community forged after regime-change in 2001-02. Compounding this problem is the reality that Islamabad has long ceased to enjoy a monopoly in terms of influencing the Taliban, who have found allies among like-minded non-state actors in Pakistan and even other state actor patrons.
Pakistan’s capacity to steer the Afghan Taliban toward a political settlement while taming fringe elements is limited. There are also limits to how far Islamabad can crackdown on the Afghan Taliban (even when Islamabad decides to do so) without furthermore undermining its own security. It is still struggling to stamp out a domestic jihadist insurgency that began in 2007. This exceedingly complex situation requires Trump and Khan to engage with greater attention to details and more emphasis on mutual common goals.
Sorting out differences with Pakistan will take time. In other words, even after over a decade and a half an end to the conflict in Afghanistan remains elusive. Meanwhile, the Trump administration also has to work with other nations with a major stake in the war-torn country. Iran is one such regional player with its own deeply troubled relationship with the United States and thus an interest in undermining U.S.-Pakistan cooperation on Afghanistan.
Dr. Kamran Bokhari is the Director of Strategy & Programs at the Center for Global Policy (CGP) and a Senior Lecturer at the University of Ottawa’s Security and Policy Institute for Professional Development. He tweets at @KamranBokhari. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.