While working to break the Afghan stalemate, the US and Pakistan appear to have fallen back into a familiar pattern and bilateral ties seem to have been revived. Having passed through a low period last year, this rehabilitation of the relationship may have taken many onlookers by surprise.
There have been several positive indications in recent weeks and things seem to be on the mend unless something untoward happens. Signifying a strategic shift in bilateral ties, these events have ended the stagnation prevailing since 2017.
Mainly, the first turning point was when US President Donald Trump sought the help of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in taking the peace talks forward. Considering that Pakistan-US ties have been relatively unstable and unpredictable since the Trump administration took over in Washington, this denotes a change of direction and opens new possibilities for bilateral ties.
Another positive sign was when on a visit to Islamabad recently, US Senator Lindsey Graham unexpectedly suggested that Trump meet Khan, as he believed they would “hit it off” as they had “similar personalities.” During his meeting with Khan, he expressed hopes that the relationship could be changed into one of strategic engagement along with a free-trade agreement instead of a “transactional” one as in the recent past. Notably, he also appreciated that Pakistan was installing a border fence along the Durand Line, which is its border with Afghanistan, to improve security.
Considering the current bonhomie between the two nations, it will not be surprising if Trump visits Pakistan sometime this year. If this happens, it would help balance Pakistan’s role in the region again and it could act as an intermediary between the US and China as it has done in the past. Not only that, relations between India and Pakistan could also improve as the US can be a positive influence and it can help sort out differences between the two South Asian neighbors.
Ostensibly, one of the main reasons for this change of heart is that Pakistan has played a positive role and helped in the efforts to end the Afghan conundrum. Supporting the ongoing reconciliation process between the Taliban and the Afghan government, Pakistan continues to facilitate the US in finding a sustainable solution for peace in Afghanistan, it lacks any direct control or influence over the Taliban.
Given the positive role played by Pakistan in the Afghan peace initiative, this thaw in bilateral relations should continue, especially as the Afghan Taliban are not eager to come to the table. Having some influence in winding down this impasse, Pakistan has a good opportunity to get in Washington’s good books if it can persuade the Taliban to cooperate.
Assisted by Lisa Curtis, a senior White House official, Zalmay Khalilzad, the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, is engaged in efforts to arrange summit-level talks that could finally end the 17-year war in Afghanistan. In recent months, Khalilzad held several meetings with the Taliban and the Afghan government, and the most promising one was held in Abu Dhabi in the presence of representatives from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.
Breaking the deadlock at the earliest has become necessary as the Trump administration wishes to conclude a peace deal before the next presidential elections in Afghanistan.
Determined to address the “legitimate concerns” of all sides in the Afghan conflict to achieve peace, Khalilzad is seeking a breakthrough. Apparently, Pakistan would try to invite the Taliban to Islamabad for the next round of talks. Up to now, the main obstacle has been the Taliban’s continued refusal to engage in direct talks with the Afghan government. Nevertheless, Pakistan and the US are convinced that it is just a matter of time before the two sides adopt a realistic and practical approach.
Geopolitically, Afghanistan is vitally close to Central Asia and potentially connects Eurasia with an alternative route to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor with the upcoming Lapis Lazuli corridor
Once this hurdle is overcome, it should be plain sailing, and the US can make plans in line with its geopolitical and security interests. As per the last Afghan-US security pact concluded by the preceding administration led by president Barack Obama, the US and its NATO partners would establish a permanent presence in Afghanistan. It remains to be seen what deal is struck this time, but it is quite likely that the US would maintain a nominal presence for regional security.
Geopolitically, Afghanistan is vitally close to Central Asia and potentially connects Eurasia with an alternative route to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor with the upcoming Lapis Lazuli corridor. Likewise, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) project is an alternative option to the Iranian route, and it has been called the “peace pipeline.”
Therefore, Afghanistan retains relevance for the US even in the long term due to these alternative supply routes, and Washington might provide substantial finances for the reconstruction of Afghanistan if the peace deal allows it to maintain some presence in the country.
According to Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, “The solution to the Afghan issue is not possible without intra-Afghan dialogue, and Pakistan considers it vital for the restoration of peace in the entire region.”
Sharing the same views, Washington and Islamabad are trying for such a settlement but it requires patience. Dealing with the Taliban has been quite a complicated process as they have changed their stance several times during the negotiations.