In August 2017, President Donald Trump gave a speech outlining his Afghanistan policy, a major aim of which was to compel the Taliban to begin peace negotiations with the Kabul government by applying military pressure on the insurgency. Simultaneously, he criticized Pakistan—terming it deceitful—while praising neighboring India for its development work in Afghanistan. The president’s indictment of Pakistan was followed by Secretary of Defense James Mattis issuing “one last chance” to Islamabad to rein in the Taliban and allied Haqqani network and keep them from using Pakistani territory to plot terrorist attacks in Afghanistan.

For years, the Pentagon has categorically ruled out direct U.S. talks with the Taliban, maintaining that it would limit its involvement to sitting on the sidelines of an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” peace process. However, with no side able to make any decisive gains, the battlefield stalemate continues. Keeping in view that almost all of the critical military and strategic objectives of the U.S.’s 2017 Afghan strategy—to deny safe havens in Pakistan, to reduce the Taliban’s fighting capability, and to disincentivize Pakistan’s ability to nurture the Taliban—remain unfulfilled, the U.S. wants to assure that the Taliban cannot prolong the conflict. If talking directly to the Taliban has been taboo up until this point, it is now seen in Washington as the only way forward for securing peace in Afghanistan.

The Trump administration has now basically accepted the position that the Afghan conflict cannot be brought to an end without direct negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban. If a breakthrough in the peace talks with the Taliban is achieved, it will help the U.S. get out of its longest war ever, an accomplishment for which Trump can take credit. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Jul. 9, expressed U.S. willingness to “support, facilitate, and participate in these peace discussions” with the Taliban, which will also “include a discussion of the role of international actors and forces” in Afghanistan. However, he also assured the Kabul government that the final peace settlement “must be decided by the Afghans and settled among them.”

To this end, and in a remarkable shift in long-standing American policy, a team led by senior diplomat Alice Wells held a secret meeting in mid-July with Taliban representatives led by Abbas Stanikzai in Doha, Qatar. The talks did not have any representation from the Kabul government. This has been seen as one of the most significant confidence-building measures between the Taliban and U.S. forces in the 17-year war.

Washington’s eagerness to negotiate a political settlement with the Taliban is not necessarily a win for Pakistan’s military establishment. Pakistan has no intention of seeing an end to the Afghan conflict unless it is certain about the endgame in Afghanistan and its own role in the country’s political future. The Taliban’s recent boldness—as demonstrated in its ferocious assault on the strategic southeastern city of Ghazni—is not unrelated to Pakistan’s interventions in Afghanistan through both state forces and proxies. There have been reports that Pakistanis have been arrested by Afghan forces in the fighting, and that Pakistani bodies have been transported from the battlefield to Pakistan for burial. Islamabad’s role, which has primarily centered around allowing the Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan, may now include lending concrete operational support to the Taliban inside Afghanistan. Indeed, the Ghazni assault, which highlighted the vulnerability of Afghan security forces and the fragility of Kabul’s territorial control outside of the capital, was aimed at gaining the Taliban more political leverage on the eve of direct talks with the U.S. These tactics should give the Pentagon much to think about.

Both India and the U.S. do not want the emerging Pakistan-China-Russia nexus to dictate the terms of the conflict’s resolution. However, with Washington on board, hard-liners in Pakistan’s military establishment may be emboldened to push the Taliban to integrate into the governing structure of the Afghan state. The concern is that it may do so without taking into consideration the interests and demands of all parties—representation of all ethnic groups in government, protection of minorities’ and women’s rights, and guarantees that Afghan soil will not be used as a base for attacks against neighboring states.    

The appointment of Imran Khan as Pakistan’s prime minister is likely to add another dimension to the unfolding Afghan drama. Khan has been consistent in demanding engagement with the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. His first overseas destination is widely expected to be Kabul, where he will mount a charm offensive to convince Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to accept the Taliban’s demands for a power-sharing deal. The Trump administration must counteract Islamabad’s calculation that Washington does not have the stomach to engage in further escalation against Pakistan if Islamabad attempts to push through its own an agenda in Afghanistan.

The U.S. has a real opportunity here. Islamabad’s urgent need to extricate itself from a deep economic quagmire can be exploited. Pakistan cannot do without an International Monetary Fund bailout, and the Trump administration has been frank in linking this with U.S.-Pakistan relations. It would be economic suicide for Pakistan to rebuff Washington’s single-point agenda in the two countries’ bilateral ties: the Afghan peace process. Despite its rhetoric, Islamabad is well-aware that a complete break with Washington is not an option.

With the U.S. opening a direct channel of communication with the Taliban, Washington now has the option of circumventing Islamabad. In the renewed diplomatic push for a negotiated end to the conflict, if the U.S. shows some flexibility on a power-sharing formula, the Taliban may also offer a pragmatic concession—acquiescence to the continued presence of some U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Photo: NOORULLAH SHIRZADA / AFP