Can Two Populist Leaders End the Unpopular War in Afghanistan?

Can Two Populist Leaders End the Unpopular War in Afghanistan?


The American Interest

July 19, 2019

It’s a heavy lift, but with Pakistan’s economy in crisis, there are signs that Washington and Islamabad are moving toward a new transactional approach.

When U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in Washington on July 22, they are likely to spend most of the time talking about a war in a third country. Afghanistan is the top agenda item between Washington and Islamabad, and pundits will be keenly watching whether the two populist leaders can turn around an acrimonious relationship to end one of the world’s most intractable wars.

After 18 years of war and dashed hopes, that prospect may seem unlikely. But Islamabad is hoping that Trump and Khan will prioritize building a personal relationship that will restore cooperation between their countries. In practice, this means giving Pakistan’s powerful military a central part in rolling back the Taliban’s quarter-century-old war machine, which it has helped create and sustain.

Optimism in Islamabad is high that a U.S. administration keen on optics might buy into Pakistan’s presumed influence over the Taliban and once again commit to a transactional relationship that will help Islamabad’s fledgling economy and stave off international pressure over terrorism concerns. “Pakistan has welcomed President Trump’s farsighted decision to pursue a political solution in Afghanistan, which in fact was an endorsement of our own position espoused for a long time,” Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told a seminar in Islamabad this week. “The convergence in Pakistan and U.S. polices on Afghanistan has rekindled hope for resolution of the protracted Afghan conflict that has only brought misery and despondency to the region.”

In Washington, the Trump Administration seems keen to push for a deal that can be claimed as a foreign policy success for concluding America’s longest war ahead of Trump’s 2020 re-election bid. In June, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that clinching a deal before September 1 was “certainly our mission set.” In less than a year, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan, has conducted seven rounds of peace talks with the Taliban, who now see it is as a “historic opportunity.” “History tells us that wars don’t end with more fighting,” a recent statement by the group noted. “Instead, war ends with talks and agreements.”

Islamabad, or more precisely its praetorian military, has presumably played a role in bringing the Taliban to this point. “Pakistan can play an important role in facilitating peace in Afghanistan,” the State Department recently reiterated, joining Beijing and Moscow in acknowledging Islamabad’s influence. The July 12 statement said that the United States, Pakistan, China, and Russia have “encouraged all parties to take steps to reduce violence leading to a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire that starts with intra-Afghan negotiations.”

Even though the Taliban have long resisted this kind of diplomatic pressure, finding new ways to achieve a lasting armistice is the key. A permanent ceasefire could create the conditions for making the Afghan imbroglio a win-win for all parties.A permanent ceasefire could create the conditions for making the Afghan imbroglio a win-win for all parties. But getting there will first require the Trump Administration to craft a smart deal that goes beyond its narrow political interests. It should see such a pact not as a one-time agreement but rather a process toward a lasting Afghan settlement that would address Afghanistan’s domestic political complications, turn its meddling neighbors into economic partners and stakeholders in its peace, and ensure that great power interests don’t make the country revert to a battlefield.

This is a heavy lift, but the fact that Pakistan’s powerful military chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, is accompanying Khan to Washington means that his organization is desperate to patch things up with the United States. The Pakistani military lost considerable funding and aid in recent years after relations between Islamabad and Washington nosedived following Trump’s August 2017 warningthat “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens” and that Islamabad “has much to lose by continuing to harbor terrorists.” Trump’s January 2018 complaint that Pakistan has “given us nothing but lies and deceit” was perhaps the most blatant articulation of U.S. leadership frustration through various administrations since 9/11.

It is no coincidence that ties between Beijing and Islamabad have cooled since Khan assumed office last year. His administration has attempted to redefine the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road strategy. Beijing hopes that investing hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure and energy will turn China into a permanent nucleus of trade and stability in Eurasia. Washington views the ambitious plan as “debt-trap diplomacy,” ultimately aimed at determining the destiny of poor nations. Unlike North Korea, Pakistan doesn’t want to have China as its only ally and instead wants to move back into the Western fold. Earlier this month, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a $6 billion, three-year loan to support its fledgling economy. During the past year the pro-Western Arab monarchies in the Gulf extended economic “lifelines” to Pakistan.

This gives Washington an opportunity to reshape its relations with Islamabad in a direction that will ultimately end the Afghan war. Now that ties between Washington and Islamabad are on the mend, the two countries can seek cooperation “to bring peace, stability, and economic prosperity to a region that has seen far too much conflict,” as a recent White House statement put it. But transforming these aspirations into a tangible, on-the-ground process demands specific asks of Pakistan that would set in motion a course that will not rock the boat in Afghanistan.

Washington can press Pakistan’s military to help convince the Taliban to agree to a lasting ceasefire in return for a clear roadmap for a U.S. military pullout. The absence of violence will in turn create the confidence and conditions for Afghans to debate, bargain, and possibly agree on a future political system. Kabul will be reluctant to give Islamabad a prominent role in the peace process but has been pushing for its cooperation in reducing violence. Currently, this is a main stumbling block in the peace process, and vague assurances of reducing violence levels will ultimately backfire. For nearly two decades, most of the Taliban’s senior leadership and their insurgency have been dependent on sanctuaries inside Pakistan. For the first time, Islamabad can use its influence over the insurgents to turn off the taps of violence in Kabul.

The move can be linked to Pakistan’s obligations under the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to avoid a possible blacklisting in November and a new resolve to implement its domestic counterterrorism effort, formally called the National Action Plan. The FATF blacklisting would cripple Pakistan’s struggling economy. Like Iran and North Korea, the two countries currently blacklisted, it would downgrade Islamabad’s credit rating and narrow its chances of accessing international loans and development assistance.

Still, fear of the blacklisting may not be enough to make Pakistan lead a serious and good-faith crackdown on terrorists. So far, Islamabad appears to be up to its old tricks—utilizing the terrorism issue to milk concessions from Washington. 

On July 17, authorities in the eastern Pakistani province of Punjab arrested Hafiz Saeed, the radical Islamist leader accused of masterminding the November 2008 attacks in India’s commercial hub Mumbai, which killed 166 people. Washington designated Saeed a terrorist and offered a $10 million bounty for his capture years ago. Hours after his arrest, Trump tweeted that “after a ten year search, the so-called ‘mastermind’ of the Mumbai Terror attacks has been arrested in Pakistan. Great pressure has been exerted over the last two years to find him.” But within hours his tweet attracted a barrage of criticism, reminding him that Saeed has been living openly for years and even addressed large public gatherings—and that he has been arrested, and released, by Pakistani officials eight times before.

Washington should not be fooled by such public spectacles. It needs to ensure that Islamabad finds no financial or political incentives in covertly supporting violent extremist groups. One part of this arrangement requires brokering a lasting agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan to cease all support and sanctuary for groups fighting the neighboring country. For years President Ashraf Ghani’s government has argued that “undeclared hostilities” between Kabul and Islamabad have been at the heart of the war in Afghanistan.

Numerous diplomatic and security mechanisms including leadership summits for the three countries have attempted to cultivate this cooperation, but failed because there were no shared economic benefits. Given Pakistan’s economic crisis, Washington can make a convincing case for increased economic and trade cooperation that will give Islamabad major stakes in partnering with Afghanistan on reciprocal access to the Central Asian and South Asian markets. Granting Afghanistan access to India via Pakistani road networks could be a promising start, and the two neighbors made some progress on the issue during Ghani’s visit to Islamabad last month.

Plugging Afghanistan’s economy into the surrounding region would ultimately enable it to sustain a state capable of providing for and protecting its population and territory. It would gradually end the need for Western taxpayers to sustain the Afghan state. Washington could possibly ease up on its military sales to the Pakistani military, but denying it cash grants and “reimbursement” for military offensives will push it to define a new economic future for the country, one not dependent on being a frontline ally of Washington in a new round of the Afghan war.

Washington’s new understanding with Islamabad should focus on weaning it away from destructive past practices. In Afghanistan’s context, this will mean giving up on its obsession with molding the Afghan state to its liking by supporting extremist Islamist groups. The Pakistani military and civilian leadership will be in a better place if they ditch the paranoias they have clung to for so long. Changing such deeply ingrained habits of thought in the Pakistani bureaucracy is no small task, of course, especially for an outside power like the United States. But Washington can at least offer the right carrots and sticks, at a time of economic crisis in Pakistan, to steer Islamabad toward a more productive course.

As to future negotiations with the Taliban, the key to success will lie in recognizing Pakistan’s limited political control and in unpacking the hardline Islamist movement’s ultimate political objectives. It is a small encouragement that in a recent meeting with delegates representing Afghan society the Taliban agreed to assure Afghan women that their fundamental rights will be protected in “political, social, economic, educational, [and] cultural affairs . . . . in accordance with the values of Islam.”

But as the Taliban join complex talks about the country’s future, it is important to remember that the movement has not given up on transforming Afghanistan into what its leaders envision as a purely Islamic state and society. Somewhat cleverly, their official pronouncements refrain from emphasizing the Islamic Emirate—the formal name of the Taliban.

Washington will be better off recognizing that Islamabad has spoiler power but not the ability to dictate political terms to the Taliban. Islamabad’s role should be to help sustain a lasting ceasefire; this will give Afghans a stake in peace and help shape a political bargain that they can then own and fine-tune.

Despite a few superficial similarities, Trump and Khan have followed very different paths to power, have very different outlooks and objectives, and head executive branches of government with vastly different roles, resources, and powers. Their meeting in Washington can create an opportunity for the bureaucracies in the two countries to shut down a war their predecessors shaped during the past four decades in the same corridors of power. Both leaders have a unique opportunity to break new ground in a grand way, with benefits for the region and—perhaps most significantly for these two populist leaders—for their own political fortunes at home.

Abubakar Siddique, editor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Gandhara website, is author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan. He has also reported on the Pashtun Protection Movement for The American Interest. The views expressed here are those of the author alone and not of his employer.

Can Two Populist Leaders End the Unpopular War in Afghanistan?