US-Pakistan Relations in the Shadow of Ongoing Afghan Peace Talks
US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad calls on Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. (PID photo)
By Abdul Basit

US-Pakistan Relations in the Shadow of Ongoing Afghan Peace Talks

Jan. 22, 2019  |     |  0 comments

In recent years, particularly after US President Donald Trump’s announcement of his Afghanistan-South Asia policy in September 2017, US-Pakistan relations have been shaped by developments in Afghanistan and the latter’s cooperation or the lack of it in counter-terrorism. In its new Afghanistan-South Asia policy, the Trump administration has taken a tough line on Pakistan. The US has demanded that the country’s powerful military establishment eliminate the sanctuaries of the Afghan Taliban and use its influence on the insurgent group to join peace talks with Washington and Kabul.

A relatively new dimension in US-Pakistan relations is Chinese development and infrastructure investment in Pakistan under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) — the flagship project of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This dimension has become more pronounced in the midst of the US-China trade war. Both Beijing and Washington are trying to outbid each other to retain their influence in Pakistan. Islamabad’s request from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to overcome its balance of payments crisis has been used by Washington to push back against Beijing. The US has urged Pakistan to disclose the terms of CPEC projects and agreements to avail the IMF bailout, which has left Beijing nervous and perturbed. For instance, in July 2018, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discouraged the IMF from bailing out Pakistan, warning the money would be used to repay Chinese lenders and bondholders. China has warned Pakistan that the IMF package should not affect bilateral economic and development projects.

Nonetheless, the defining factor which will make or break US-Pakistan relations is the existing security situation in Afghanistan. There are two views among the policy experts on the current status of war in Afghanistan. One set of experts believes that the US has lost the war in Afghanistan, and that there is no need to waste more time, money and men on a war that is unwinnable. Further, Pakistan’s lack of counter-terrorism cooperation with the US and provision of sanctuaries to the Afghan Taliban in Quetta and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border have undermined US interests in Afghanistan. Pakistan should pay for its non-cooperation and duplicity.

The contending view is that the war is deadlocked in Afghanistan and requires complex and consistent diplomatic efforts to bring it to a politically negotiated end. In this diplomatic effort, the US should use its diplomatic clout on Pakistan to cooperate in bringing the Taliban to the negotiation table and convincing them to enter into a power-sharing agreement with the Kabul government. According to this view, a unilateral pullout of US troops from Afghanistan will ease the military pressure on Al-Qaeda and will allow it to rejuvenate. Besides, it will pave the way for another civil war in Afghanistan with far reaching consequences for regional peace and security.

US Sanctions on Pakistan under the Trump Administration

Since the inauguration of Trump’s Afghanistan-South Asia policy, the US has cancelled USD 300 million in military reimbursements under the Coalition Support Fund (CSF) to Pakistan for failing to act against the Taliban sanctuaries. Moreover, under the National Defence Authorization Act 2019 (NDAA-19), the US Congress has reduced Pakistan’s military aid to USD 150 million per year from USD 750 million per year. Likewise, in August 2018, the Trump administration cancelled the International Military Education and Training Programme (IMET) for Pakistani military officers. In June 2018, the US was also instrumental in Pakistan’s grey-listing by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the counter-terrorism financing and anti-money-laundering watchdog. More recently, Washington added Islamabad to its blacklist of countries that violate religious freedom, a step short of full designation.

Pakistan’s Influence on the Taliban

This backdrop is important for understanding where US-Pakistan relations stand presently, and how they may be affected by the different possible outcomes of the US-Taliban peace talks. The US demands that Pakistan not only facilitate the peace talks and midwife a peace agreement, but to do so on US terms. In the US estimation, such an agreement would entail a power-sharing agreement between the Kabul government and the Taliban, and the latter’s acceptance of Afghanistan’s constitution and democratic order. From Pakistan’s perspective, this is a tall order.

Pakistan’s influence on the Afghan Taliban is not only misunderstood in the US and the West but grossly over-exaggerated as well. While Pakistan retains a modicum of influence on the Taliban — given that the group’s Rahbari Shura (Leadership council) resides in Quetta — Pakistan is not able to dictate terms to them. All along, Islamabad’s position on peace talks has been that it can convince the Taliban to enter peace talks but what comes out of these negotiations is not in its hands.

The Taliban movement has evolved immensely since 2015. It has minimized its sole dependence on Pakistan (to avoid its blackmail and arm-twisting) and diversified its ties with China, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Saudi Arabia. In short, the Taliban will only accept demands which suit them notwithstanding Pakistani pressure. Three key leaders of the Taliban movement, Mullah Yaqoob — the son of the Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Omar, and the deputy of the present Taliban chief Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada — finance chief Gul Agha Ishaqzai, and military chief Khalifa Ibrahim Haqqani, spend most of their time in Afghanistan. At one point in 2015, when the Pakistani military establishment forced the Taliban leadership to open talks with Kabul or leave from Pakistan, they preferred relocating to Afghanistan.

Three Scenarios

Three broad scenarios can emerge from the on-going US-Taliban negotiations: a) the talks fail, b) the talks succeed, c) the US unilaterally withdraws from Afghanistan without any agreement. The probability of the US pulling out without a deal is fairly high, but it is the most unlikely scenario. In other words, the US will not fully withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. Besides 14,000 troops, the US also has 25,375 private security contractors in Afghanistan who will continue to assist and advise the Afghan National Defense Security Forces (ANDSF). The privatization of the Afghan war along the Erik Prince model (the founder of Blackwater) cannot be ruled out either. The possibility of failure of the US-Taliban talks is very high, and it is the most likely scenario. In contrast, the possibility of success of the US-Taliban talks is low, and it is the most unlikely scenario.

All these scenarios and their implications for US-Pakistan relations have to be situated in the new US security strategy which considers Russia and China as bigger threats compared to terrorism and failed states. In this new strategic equation, Pakistan is closely allied with China, while India is America’s major partner in containing China in South Asia and the Indo-Pacific (previously the Asia-Pacific). Notwithstanding the outcome of the US-Taliban talks, Pakistan-US relations will be redefined by this new geo-political development. Pakistan is learning to balance itself between the two super-powers and hedge its position to forward its interests without angering or alienating either of the two.

Scenario 1: Talks Fail

If the US-Taliban talks fail, which is highly probable, then it will affect US-Pakistan relations negatively. The Trump administration is wary of the US being the world’s policeman. Its focus is local and it wants to save its resources to fix its ailing economy and create jobs for Americans, and to give Trump another shot at the presidency. Until now, the US has used a stick and carrot approach with Pakistan to extract desirable cooperation. For instance, while it placed Pakistan on the blacklist for violating religious freedom, it informed the Pakistani side that the status will not result in any sanctions on Pakistan. Likewise, the US has been instrumental in Pakistan’s grey-listing by FATF, but Pakistan has also been given an opportunity to avoid blacklisting by improving its performance on money-laundering and terrorist financing. Similarly, although the US warned the IMF not to bail out Pakistan, it has softened its position following the US-Taliban meeting in the UAE.

This stick and carrot approach could change to more sticks and no carrots if the talks fail. Then the US would move swiftly to place Pakistan on the FATF’s blacklist, block its bailout package from the IMF, and impose more stringent sanctions which could include strict visa policies for Pakistani nationals and bans on multinational companies from doing business with Pakistan.

Once the US withdraws, its focus will be on counter-terrorism instead of nation-building. In this scenario, the US will squarely blame Pakistan for undermining the US mission in Afghanistan by providing sanctuaries to the Afghan Taliban and not using its influence on them to strike a peace deal.

Generally, the Pakistani response to US sanctions has been to find a way out and restore a working relationship with the US. Pakistan’s current military hardware is based on its security imports from the US. The maintenance and upkeep of this military hardware necessitates a working relationship with the US. Likewise, the US is Pakistan’s largest export market notwithstanding growing economic ties with China. Pakistan would not like to lose that particularly when it is faced with a growing trade deficit and chronic balance of payments crisis. Losing the American export market would only exacerbate Pakistan’s current economic woes.

Short of ideal cooperation, Pakistan would do enough to keep the US interested with a hope that all is not lost. For instance, if the talks fail, Pakistan might arrest a couple of the top Taliban leaders and destroy a couple of sanctuaries to pressurize them and please the US. Likewise, Pakistan would be useful for the US to garner the support of other regional countries such as Russia, Iran, and China on Afghanistan.

Scenario 2: Talks Succeed

This is an unlikely scenario. The US special representative for Afghan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad’s shuttle diplomacy has produced encouraging meetings between the US and the Taliban in Qatar and Abu Dhabi, but both sides have not found any common ground. These meetings remain exploratory where both sides have been stating their principle positions. In the peace talks, the greatest US leverage on the Taliban was its troop presence in Afghanistan. By announcing a unilateral drawdown of 7,000 troops from Afghanistan, Trump has literally pulled the rug out from Khalilzad. Trump has made Khalilzad’s job much more difficult. Trump has given the Taliban exactly what they wanted without making compromises. This development will further harden the Taliban’s current position and encourage them to stick to their maximalist position in talks.

The Taliban’s refusal to talk to the National Unity Government (NUG) has resulted in three significant developments which will affect the US-Taliban talks directly or indirectly. First, President Ashraf Ghani has appointed two anti-Taliban figures as acting ministers — Amrullah Saleh as the acting interior minister and Asadullah Khalid as the acting defense minister. These two individuals support an open-ended war with the Taliban. In other words, for being neglected by Washington in peace talks, Kabul is toughening its stance towards peace talks.

Second, at the UN-backed conference in Geneva in November, Ghani announced his own peace plan with a five-year time frame. He has conveniently tied peace talks to the next presidential term. His most pressing concern is re-election rather than peace. In a way, Kabul is moving away from the US-Taliban talks.

Third, Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) has postponed the presidential election due in April by three months (expected to take place in July or August) to fix the technical glitches — including problems with the biometric verification system and delays in elections results — encountered in October’s parliamentary elections. Moreover, Ghani is staunchly opposed to the idea of an interim government ruling Afghanistan while the warring parties hold talks and come to a political compromise. By delaying the election, Ghani has literally poured cold water on Khalilzad’s peace mission. The momentum that he had generated for a peace deal by April has been lost now. Trump deprived him of his biggest leverage in the peace talks by announcing the drawdown of 7,000 troops and Ghani torpedoed his time line by delaying the presidential election. Clearly, Ghani wants to stay in power and reach a compromise with the Taliban only after he has been re-elected.

It is quite clear that the US and Afghanistan are not on the same page on the ongoing peace talks. Trump wanted a deal before the election, but Ghani prefers a deal (or perhaps no deal) after the election. His main concern is power, not peace. This leaves Pakistan in a very tight spot. This will force the powers that be in Pakistan to reconsider their approach in terms of the timing of the peace deal. Clearly, time and the prevailing environment are not conducive for peace talks.

Successful peace talks will be no less than a miracle. In any case, to persuade the Taliban to join the peace process, the Pentagon in its recent report submitted to Congress has outlined a plan which guarantees safety to Taliban fighters and their families and job security. Some policy experts also view Trump’s announcement of the troop reduction as a peace confidence-building measure which was a follow up of terms agreed between the US and the Taliban in the UAE. For them, it is a step in the direction of peace, not war.

If talks succeed, US-Pakistan ties are likely to remain low-key without any further improvement or deterioration. As mentioned above, China has emerged as a new factor in US-Pakistan relations. In the grand scheme of things, the US will invest more in its ties with India to contain China. A working relationship between the sides will continue.

Scenario 3: The US Withdraws from Afghanistan

There has been no official announcement from the US of a troop withdrawal. Neither the White House nor the Pentagon has announced any such plan. Trump’s tweet was not an official announcement. In any case, if the US withdrew from Afghanistan, there would be widespread chaos in Afghanistan. Such an outcome will create a triumphant jihadist narrative that after the former Soviet Union, another superpower has been defeated in Afghanistan. This will fuel worldwide terrorist recruitment along with easing the military pressure on Al-Qaeda.

In January 2018, in an interview with CBS’ 60 Minutes, Ghani admitted that his government will not last six months without US support and capabilities. There will be a civil war in Afghanistan which will have a direct fallout on Pakistan. A large wave of Afghan refugees will enter Pakistan resulting in widespread social tension, street crimes, drug peddling, gun-running, as well as terrorism. The several hundred terrorists who fled Pakistan in Operation Zarb-e-Azb will re-enter Pakistan posing as refugees.

Once the US withdraws, its focus will be on counter-terrorism instead of nation-building. The US will maintain a minimal footprint in Afghanistan and use its airpower (drones and jetfighters) to eliminate terrorist sanctuaries in Afghanistan. Currently, the US maintains a military presence primarily at bases in Kabul and Bagram with regional outstations in Nangarhar Province in the east, Kandahar Province in the south, Herat Province in the west, and Balkh Province in the north. Moreover, the Trump administration may move towards the Erik Prince model by privatizing the war in Afghanistan.

In this scenario, the US will squarely blame Pakistan for undermining the US mission in Afghanistan by providing sanctuaries to the Afghan Taliban and not using its influence on them to strike a peace deal. The US, as mentioned above, will slap harsh economic and military sanctions on Pakistan and increase pressure on it through the UN and other multilateral financial and diplomatic institutions. In such a situation, Pakistani cooperation or non-cooperation will become immaterial given the large magnitude of the problem. It will be beyond Pakistan’s capacity to fix the Afghan conundrum.

The paradox of the Afghan war is that conflict resolution is neither possible by keeping the US in the equation, nor by taking it out of the equation. No country other than the US has the diplomatic clout, military wherewithal and economic resources to keep the myriad Afghan political groups within the existing democratic framework. The manner in which the US withdraws from Afghanistan will directly affect the future political order in Afghanistan. A phased withdrawal coinciding with political settlement will lead to stabilization, while a sudden pullout with a premature peace deal will be a recipe for civil war.

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