United States President Donald Trump tweeted on September 6 that he had “called off peace negotiations” with the Afghan Taliban after the group claimed responsibility for an attack in Kabul. However, in the weeks since the US-Taliban talks officially “collapsed”, officials in Pakistan have said that nothing has changed in their role as mediator between the Trump regime and the Taliban leadership.
Officials privy to the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI)-led government’s understanding with the Trump regime confirmed that despite the well-publicized fallout between Trump and the Afghan Taliban, Islamabad is committed to facilitating talks between the two parties as discussed during Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Washington in July.
“The US wants Pakistan to help with the talks with the Afghan Taliban and to ensure a solution in Afghanistan that Washington wants. Despite Mr Trump saying the negotiations have been called off, our commitment to the talks and peace in Afghanistan remains the same,” an official from the Foreign Office of Pakistan said.
Despite Trump’s categorical tweet, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement on Tuesday asking the Taliban to “begin to demonstrate a genuine commitment to peace” amidst the rise in attacks in Afghanistan, which also suggested that talks are not entirely off the table.
Visits to Russia, Iran
Furthermore, a week after the apparent collapse of the peace talks, a Taliban delegation visited Russia to continue discussions about concerns after the US withdrawal. Similarly, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi told the media that the Taliban had ‘recently’ sent a delegation to Iran for talks as well.
Observers note that other states pushing themselves as stakeholders in Afghanistan will also push the US to reconsider its loudly touted position on the talks. And Islamabad appears to hold the key to Washington’s preferred solution in Kabul.
Pakistani government officials noted recently that the US has been pressing Pakistan to toe its line in Afghanistan. Washington has warned that the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the global body which fights the funding of terrorism, is on the verge of putting Islamabad on its blacklist of offenders. Similarly, the recent $6-billion bailout that Pakistan received from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) came in exchange for Islamabad aligning itself with Washington’s interests in the region.
“The IMF’s bailout package for Pakistan is designed to serve its political interests, not to serve Pakistan’s economic needs,” the PTI government’s former spokesperson on energy and economy, Farrukh Saleem claimed.
“They asked to devalue the rupee when the trade deficit was extremely high. There are virtually no reforms for Pakistan’s actual economic problems. The bailout is obviously a political tool.”
A serious economic crisis meant Pakistan had little choice but to accept the IMF’s conditions for the bailout package. Meanwhile, the duplicity of the previous security policy has meant that Pakistan stands on the brink of FATF blacklisting at a time when Islamabad has been frustrated by New Delhi’s clampdown in Kashmir.
Islamabad’s vulnerability continues to give Washington the power it needs to push through its initiative in Kabul. However, analysts note that it is in Pakistan’s best interests to remain useful for the US in Afghanistan.
“No deal with [the Afghan Taliban] may lead to Washington’s loss of interest [in Pakistani issues, including] in Kashmir. Afghanistan is the reason [the US] initiated a conversation over Kashmir,” noted international relations analyst Umair Jamal said.
“[However] an agreement would not only vindicate Pakistan’s longstanding position over the conflict but could also keep the country’s position central in the wake of American troops withdrawing,” he added.
Surge in violence
Talks between the US and the Afghan Taliban broke down at a time when violence in Afghanistan was surging. According to reports by the BBC, an average of 74 people were killed every day in Afghanistan in August.
At the same time, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or the Pakistani Taliban, had re-emerged in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) – the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
With Al-Qaeda still linked with the Afghan Taliban, and the Islamic State (ISIS) gradually shifting from the Middle East to South Asia, the Afghanistan-Pak border is a power vacuum that many jihadist groups are eyeing.
“We are mistaken if we believe that the US will withdraw all its forces. They’ve maintained that they will deploy some military and intelligence gathering personnel there as part of their condition-based withdrawal,” Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US Najmuddin Shaikh said.
“Of course, it’s important for Pakistan to help bring peace in Afghanistan, but if that does not seem possible as things stand, we should tell the [Afghan] Taliban that you have control in Uruzgan, Kandahar and Helmand, so settle there and discuss a ceasefire and negotiate [with the US] from there. Please leave us alone.”
Author is an Islamabad-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.