Afghan conflict map: iStock

The US State Department chose last Friday to announce the decision to approve a $125-million aid package providing technical support to Pakistan’s fleet of F-16 fighter aircraft.

Ironically, the news reached New Delhi on the 20th Kargil Vijay Diwas celebration, an anniversary that symbolizes, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi put it on Saturday, “India’s might, determination, capability, discipline and patience” to thwart Pakistan’s hostile acts.

Clearly, Washington has begun to “incentivize” Pakistan, after talks between President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Imran Khan at the White House on July 22.

US President Donald Trump and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan shake hands during their meeting in the White House on July 22. Photo: AFP / Michael Reynolds / Pool via CNP

Meanwhile, the Pentagon also gave notice on Friday of a proposed $670-million follow-on support program for the 11 C-17 Globemaster III airlift aircraft sold by the US to India in recent years. By holding out that carrot to India, Washington hopes to create a hype that it is also favoring Delhi.

The intention here is to finesse New Delhi’s criticism over the revival of US military aid to Pakistan. Of course, it would be a delusion to think that the US is balancing India and Pakistan. In reality, the Pentagon’s India proposal is a purely commercial transaction – “after-sales service,” which will generate good business for the US vendors – while the military aid to Pakistan providing technical and logistics support for its F-16 fighter jets is on concessional terms and signifies a major political decision.

Delhi will take note that the proposed US military aid may significantly enhance Pakistan’s offensive capability insofar as some of the F-16 jets are capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

Withdrawal looms

Indeed, the “big picture” emerging out of all this is that the US and Pakistan are marching ahead in tandem to implement the decisions taken by Trump and Imran Khan to end the Afghan war swiftly.

No sooner than Khan had left Washington on July 23, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joe Dunford, traveled to Kabul for consultations with American, NATO and Afghan officials.

Dunford said he wanted to ensure that General Austin Miller, the US commander in Afghanistan, has all he needs. He added that he wanted to take the pulse of US military operations in the country. Indeed, the pulse rate is rather high, as the US withdrawal from Afghanistan looms large.

Dunford insisted that the negotiations have not changed the military mission in the country. “Day-to-day, the mission hasn’t changed for General Miller and the team, and they are still taking the fight to the Taliban and supporting the Afghan military,” he said.

Afghan security officials inspect the scene of a bomb blast near the University of Afghanistan in Kabul on July 19. At least 8 people were killed and 33 injured. Photo: AFP / Haroon Sabawoon / Anadolu

Saving face

But that’s putting on a brave face. Evidently, the US is pushing for a “face-saving way out of Afghanistan,” as former Central Intelligence Agency deputy director Michael Morell told Axios.

The message has gone down the line in the State Department and the Pentagon that Trump wants to move quickly toward a deal to end the war in Afghanistan. Morell is deeply skeptical about whether a deal with the Taliban will secure peace.

He said: “I would bet that the US intelligence community and policymakers have a pretty good understanding of what the Taliban’s intentions are. So we’re making a deal that we know isn’t going to be kept just to save face, just to maintain honor.”

Morell repeated his past warnings that the Taliban are “ideologically not disposed to sharing power.”

Amir Khan Mutaqi, center, the Taliban’s former culture and information minister, speaks with Ghairat Baheer, right, from the Afghan upper house, on the second day of Intra Afghan Dialogue talks in Doha on July 8, while the US and the insurgents seek to end 18 years of war. Photo: AFP / Karim Jaafar

However, an apocalyptic scenario cannot deter Washington anymore. On a parallel mission, the US special representative on Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, also took off on July 23 from Washington to Kabul, where he is now speaking with members of the Afghan government, as he works to encourage inter-Afghan conversations between the Taliban and the government.

In immediate terms, Khalilzad expects Pakistan to deliver on the promise that Imran Khan made to Trump – that he plans to meet with the Taliban to persuade them to hold negotiations with the government in Afghanistan. The Taliban has welcomed such a meeting.

US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. Photo: AFP

Khan said: “Now, when I go back after meeting President Trump … I will meet the Taliban and I will try my best to get them to talk to the Afghan government so that the elections in Afghanistan must be inclusive, where the Taliban also participate in it.”

It may seem a tough call, but the news from Kabul on Saturday suggests that Pakistan may have made some headway already.

The Afghan state minister for peace affairs, Abdul Salam Rahimi, announced on Saturday that the Afghan government was preparing for direct talks with the Taliban. “The government will be represented by a 15-member delegation. We are working will all sides and hope that in the next two weeks the first meeting will take place in a European country,” Rahimi said.

Oslo has been mentioned as the venue for the crucial meeting. The Taliban have not yet budged from their longstanding demand that a deal must be forged with the US first. Possibly, a deal will be announced after the ninth round of US-Taliban talks in Doha in the coming week.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani inspects a guard of honor during the first day of the Loya Jirga in Kabul on April 29. Photo: Rahmat Gul / AFP

Indeed, we are witnessing an utterly fascinating spectacle of diplomatic pirouette being played out between and among five main protagonists – Trump, who is demanding an expeditious US withdrawal from Afghanistan, assuming Imran Khan will deliver on his promises; Khan, in turn, going through the motions of persuading the Taliban to be reasonable while expecting generous US reciprocal moves to accommodate Pakistani interests; Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, seeing the writing on the wall that US withdrawal is unstoppable, while still hoping to secure a second term in office; Khalilzad pushing the reluctant Afghan government to fall in line with a Taliban deal, while also negotiating with the Taliban for an orderly US withdrawal, albeit with a weak hand; and the Taliban on a roll, sensing victory.

There are caveats galore. But the compass has been set.

Read: Ending the Afghan war (messily, yet again)

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute, which provided it to Asia Times.

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