The new U.S. special representative to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, just finished his first official visit to Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. During his Oct. 4-14 trip, Khalilzad met with major stakeholders in the Afghan conflict, including the Taliban. His major responsibility is to coordinate and lead U.S. efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. However, Khalilzad faces immense challenges in his new job as there are a multitude of hurdles in resolving the Afghan conflict.

Khalilzad’s appointment is a part of a U.S. policy to pressure Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has already thrown his weight behind Khalilzad. Immediately after his appointment, he termed Khalilzad as the most suitable diplomat for the task of “achieving a durable peace in Afghanistan that will ensure security for the American people.” Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi held meetings with Pompeo and U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton during his 10-day U.S. visit, but the absence of a joint statement after the talks indicated that the U.S. does not want to reduce the pressure on Rawalpindi at this critical juncture.

The most important and immediate challenge is the negative reaction of Pakistan’s security establishment to his appointment. During a recent interaction at Washington-based think tank the U.S. Institute of Peace, Qureshi urged Khalilzad “to be more sensitive” to Pakistani opinion if he wants to play “an honest broker,” arguing that his “official position” requires him “to be more restrained.” Khalilzad has indeed been very critical of Pakistan, previously calling on the U.S. to declare Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism.  

Despite Pakistani wishes to the contrary, the U.S. will continue to see bilateral ties with Pakistan mainly through the Afghan prism. This was reflected in the renewed demand by Gen. Joseph L. Votel, commander of the U.S. Central Command, “that there are no instructions, direction, other things coming from Taliban leadership that remains in Pakistan to their fighters” in Afghanistan and “that fighters can’t come back into Pakistan to get aid or medical care.” Given the Trump administration’s unusually tough stand, there is a great deal of desperation among Pakistani officials to publicly display business-as-usual ties with America. When Qureshi tried to turn his handshake with Trump into an “informal meeting” where they agreed to “re-build” fractured ties during a luncheon in New York, the White House immediately corrected it. 

Khalilzad’s problems are further compounded by the fact that Ashraf Ghani’s government has yet to present a proposal that the Taliban could accept. The Taliban continues to believe strongly that what can be done by violence and intimidation cannot be done by argument and persuasion. Indeed, how to conduct direct negotiations with the Taliban is another priority area for Khalilzad. Including Qatar in his first official itinerary was deliberate, since Taliban representatives had met in Doha with senior U.S. diplomat Alice Wells in July. However, what really matters about Khalilzad’s reported meeting with the Taliban representatives in Doha is what substantive comes out of it in terms of bridging the gap in respective positions. The strategic challenge for Khalilzad will be intensifying the attitudes within the Taliban insurgency favorable to American goals, while reversing the hostile attitudes.

The idea of privatizing the war effort has not found favor with the Afghan government either. Blackwater founder Erik Prince, who has been lobbying the U.S. establishment on his proposal to privatize parts of American military operations in Afghanistan, tried unsuccessfully to convince several Afghan political figures in his recent Kabul visit. Ghani’s national security adviser had to issue a statement that the government would never “allow the counterterrorism fight to become a private, for-profit business.” Since Secretary of Defence James Mattis has already rejected this proposal, it is unlikely that Khalilzad would push the idea of war privatization further.

If internal differences within the Afghan government on how to make peace with the Taliban are sure to hinder Khalilzad’s efforts, geopolitical entanglements involving regional rivalries between U.S. and Russia or between India and Pakistan have no easy solutions either. China and Iran have also become active players on the Afghan chessboard. Moscow has weighed in on the side of the Taliban, which it believes cannot be eliminated militarily and is the lesser evil vis-à-vis Afghanistan’s ISIS affiliate, ISKP. It remains to be seen what advice Khalilzad will give to the Trump administration in terms of its Iran policy in view of Tehran’s willingness to provide the Taliban with whatever it takes to counter the U.S. in case regime change in Iran is attempted. The Taliban’s support for the Uighur insurgents, and China’s anxiety to ensure that Afghanistan does not become a breeding ground for jihadi extremism, needs to be skillfully exploited by Khalilzad in his bid to make Beijing a positive stakeholder in the process.

However, Pakistan’s hostility with India is something Khalilzad can ignore to the peril of his entire mission. Using one pretext or another, Pakistan continues to seek a pro-Pakistan regime in Afghanistan, while insisting that Kabul should not have close ties with New Delhi. Khalilzad is likely to argue with Pakistani interlocutors that their fears of India’s influence in Afghanistan are overblown.

Khalilzad can only deal with on-the-ground realities, not Pakistan’s contrived paranoia. He needs to make efforts in a direction that helps Pakistan reorient its strategic vision from geosecurity to geoeconomics. If Pakistan agrees to position itself as a regional trade and transit hub, while facilitating India’s connectivity with Afghanistan and Central Asia, it cannot reap the substantial economic benefits itself without also developing genuine economic interdependence between it and India. But this is easier said than done. In the meantime, it is Khalilzad’s responsibility to ensure that Washington’s salutary preference for “sticks” instead of “carrots” during the Trump administration must continue.

Photo: Mir Ahmad Firooz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images