When Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan returned home last week after his 3-day trip to Washington, he received a hero’s welcome. It was as if he had just won the cricket World Cup. But given the relatively poor state of U.S.-Pakistan ties, there were concerns the meeting would not end so well.
In any case, Khan came back with promises from President Donald J. Trump of potentially much greater trade and offers to mediate the 70-year-old Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan.
There were even suggestions that the U.S. could resume its military and economic aid to Islamabad. The Trump administration stopped the aid last year because it felt Pakistan wasn’t doing enough to rein in the various terrorist groups roaming the country. This was music to the ears of the Pakistani prime minister. The only thing Pakistan had to do in return is “deliver” the Taliban to the ongoing U.S.-Taliban negotiations. This is, of course, a big ask. It may also not be a good idea for Pakistan in the long-term.
By talking with the Taliban, the U.S. attempts to come to an agreement with the Taliban on four issues: Taliban counter-terrorism guarantees (such as not allowing Afghan territory to be used by terrorists, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State); the withdrawal of the 14,000 American troops; a permanent cease-fire; and negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government to agree on a political roadmap. There has been a total of eight meetings, and to the great chagrin of Kabul, the Afghan government has so far not been included.
President Trump has made it abundantly clear that he wants the U.S. out of Afghanistan, and the sooner the better as far as he’s concerned. Notwithstanding numerous assertions by Zalmay Khalilzad, the American diplomat negotiating with the Taliban, that the U.S. “is not cutting and running” and that it’s “not looking for a withdrawal agreement … but a peace agreement,” there’s a distinct sense that the talks are driven by politics and not strategy.
Trump hasn’t said as much, but I suspect he would very much like to announce a peace agreement with the Taliban, which would coincide nicely with the presidential election next year. And the Taliban know it. This is why they have all the trump cards (so to speak).
Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2013
Accordingly, if and when the U.S. signs a deal with the Taliban, it will merely be the fig leaf President Trump needs to leave with honor. And while we don’t yet know everything that will be in the agreement, given the poor track record of past peace agreements (the 1973 Paris Accords on Vietnam comes to mind) the odds are not good that it will be implemented, whether in part or in full.
However, we do know that the deal will include the eventual departure of all U.S. military personnel from Afghanistan. In the long-term, this is bad news for Pakistan and the United States.
Consequences of US Troop Withdrawal
Given the reality on the ground, including the expanding operational presence of the Taliban, it’s fair to assume that once the American military forces have left, the Taliban will overrun the poorly-trained and poorly-motivated Afghan security forces relatively quickly. After that, it won’t take long for them to dominate Afghanistan’s political sphere as well.
Counterintuitively, the return to power of the Pakistan-supported Taliban in Kabul wouldn’t necessarily be good news for Islamabad. With a Taliban-run Afghanistan, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Pakistani version of the Taliban which is exiled in Afghanistan, would have a safe haven from where to launch terrorist attacks into Pakistan. There would be no one to stop them from conducting these attacks.
Ironically, this would be a mirror image of when the Taliban used to have safe havens in Pakistan and launched attacks into Afghanistan, killing American and other Western troops for more than 15 years. Put differently, a Taliban-dominated Kabul would give a real fillip to terror groups in Pakistan and, accordingly, increase terrorist activity in the country. Not a good outcome.
However, even more worrisome for the region, the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan would unnecessarily cede critical geostrategic space to China in a neighborhood which is becoming increasingly important to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This, along with the development of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the port of Gwadar on the Indian Ocean, will make it easier for China to further deepen its military and economic presence in the western Indian Ocean and expand its partnerships with the countries in the region, including in particular Iran.
All in all, President Trump’s short-sighted resolve in pressing for a withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan will have long-term strategic consequences on Washington’s ability to operate in that vitally important maritime space so close to the entrance to the Persian Gulf. With China increasing its military presence in the Indian Ocean, such a free geo-strategic kick into Washington’s own goal makes absolutely no sense.
Paradoxically, by helping to deliver the Taliban to the negotiating table, Pakistan is facilitating America’s eventual departure from Afghanistan, something that Islamabad always said Washington would eventually do – a “second abandonment” as Islamabad likes to refer to it.
So, all in all, perhaps it would have been better had the Khan-Trump meeting not gone so well after all.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.