President Donald Trump’s letter to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, reportedly seeking Islamabad’s assistance in bringing Afghanistan’s Taliban to the negotiating table, is reminiscent of a similar letter by President Obama to then President Asif Ali Zardari in 2009.
Veteran diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad is also in the region trying to reprise the role Richard Holbrooke played in finding a negotiated settlement for the quagmire in Afghanistan, of which Pakistan remains a major part.
If the Trump-Khalilzad effort is to be more successful than the Obama-Holbrooke exertions, it is important to understand what went wrong earlier.
Whenever the Taliban and Pakistan’s military-intelligence leadership sense that the US is eager to withdraw from Afghanistan, they express willingness to talk.
As I have argued in my article for Foreign Policy, the Taliban prefers to ‘fight and talk’, while Pakistan often advocates a ceasefire. Highly visible attacks following peace overtures, such as the assassination in October of Kandahar police chief, General Abdul Raziq, in an attack that narrowly missed the top US commander in Afghanistan, serve two purposes.
They reinforce the narrative that Afghanistan cannot be won militarily, while also convincing fellow Jihadis that the American eagerness to negotiate is the result of weakness.
For Pakistan, the US focus on withdrawal from Afghanistan offers an opportunity to engage with Washington and to possibly secure US economic and military assistance.
The US war effort in Afghanistan since 2001 has never involved deployment of maximum force and there has never been sufficient action to shut down cross-border support for the Taliban from Pakistani territory.
Corruption and venal politics in Afghanistan have contributed to the general unwillingness among Americans to endlessly expend blood and treasure in a distant land, with no end in sight.
American fatalities in Afghanistan have been relatively low in recent years. In 2015, ten American troops lost their lives; nine were killed in 2016; and eleven in 2017. In 2018, so far, 12 American soldiers have died in combat in Afghanistan along with four other coalition soldiers, according to a New York Times article. Meanwhile, 28,529 Afghan security personnel have been killed in the fighting since 2015.
The Trump administration and its special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad believe that the time is ripe for a negotiated settlement notwithstanding past difficulties in securing a deal.
Zalmay Khalilzad is an able and experienced diplomat, uniquely qualified to navigate the treacherous politics of Afghanistan where he was born and served as US ambassador during the George W. Bush administration.
President Trump has tapped the right person for a tough job, but even Khalilzad might not be able to overcome the gap in the thinking of the Taliban and the American outlook.
Pakistan’s economy is in a tailspin and the country’s need for an IMF bailout gives the US some useful leverage. But any transaction that gives Pakistan its bailout first might not lead to a satisfactory Pakistani role in helping the Americans. On the other hand, there is also the possibility that both sides could over-estimate their respective leverage – the US over the economy and Pakistan over an Afghan settlement – making a deal more difficult.
Realising the limitations imposed on the Holbrooke effort of over-dependence on Pakistan, Khalilzad is talking directly with the Taliban. He also recognises that Pakistan might support the insurgent leaders but does not completely control their insurgency.
But even after talking to Taliban leaders directly, things might not turn out to be as different from the past as some people in Washington would like to believe. On the eve of Khalilzad’s trip, Pakistan’s minister for human rights tweeted: “This time perhaps you [should] bring a less arrogant and hostile mindset when you visit Islamabad!”
The minister, Shireen Mazari, is well-known for her inflexible views about India, Israel and the United States and is considered a mouthpiece for hardliners in Pakistan’s military and intelligence service.
Her tweet was a reminder that not only is the Taliban a difficult enemy to reconcile with; some Pakistanis also have regional ambitions that are incompatible with American objectives.
While diplomats, like Khalilzad, are busy exploring peaceful outcomes for Afghanistan, these hardliners might be rooting for a Taliban victory following an American withdrawal.
Much of the discussion about Afghanistan in Washington since 2009 has focused on how America’s longest war can be brought to an early end. It is easily forgotten that just as defeating the Taliban militarily has proved difficult, negotiating with them has not been particularly easy either.
The Taliban has been playing the long game, hoping to wait the Americans out before defeating the inadequately trained Afghan forces. Their engagement with Khalilzad’s efforts comes amidst awareness that Americans are less focused right now on the need to deny safe havens to terrorists than they were in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
While negotiating with the Taliban, Americans must remember that international terrorism is not over and precipitating US withdrawal from terrorist-infested regions like Afghanistan would only recreate ungoverned spaces that could again serve as operational bases for global terrorists.
Assurances by the Taliban and Pakistan about clearing out international terrorists have been given several times since 1996 and have often turned out to be inadequate or outright false. If there is to be a settlement this time, it would have to involve verifiable guarantees that Afghan and Pakistani soil will not be used to harbour or train terrorists responsible for attacks around the world.
Furthermore, efforts for a settlement should not end up giving a fillip to the narrative of global jihad. Al-Qaeda was born out of the storyline that Jihadi ideology forced the Soviets to withdraw from Afghanistan and led to the collapse of one superpower, the Soviet Union.
If Americans are seen to abandon Afghanistan in a hurry, the Jihadis will tell future recruits how the combination of their real religious zeal and terrorism overcame the military prowess of two superpowers.
The ‘triumph of Jihad’ narrative would increase the flow of recruits to terrorist groups and might result in increasing the frequency of terrorist attacks around the world.
Equally important are the apprehensions of Afghans other than the Taliban. Since 2001, Americans have helped Afghanistan implement a democratic constitution, provide access to education for women and encouraged the desire among Afghans to engage with the rest of the world – developments that are anathema to the Taliban. Even while pretending to talk, they seldom express willingness to allow Afghanistan’s progress to continue.
President Ashraf Ghani recently outlined the Afghan government’s roadmap for achieving peace, which emphasised “a peace agreement in which the Afghan Taliban would be included in a democratic and inclusive society” and “no armed groups with ties to transnational terrorist networks or transnational criminal organizations, or with ties to state/non-state actors, seeking influence in Afghanistan will be allowed to join the political process”.
While trying to persuade the Taliban and Pakistan to deliver peace, the Americans cannot afford to ignore the concerns of the Afghan government.
Husain Haqqani, director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C., was Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States from 2008-11. His latest book is ‘Reimagining Pakistan.