Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been appointed as the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, just wrapped up his first official visit to Afghanistan, Pakistan, the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. His primary task is to lead American efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table “in close coordination with the Afghan government and other stakeholders, exploring how best to reach a negotiated settlement to the conflict.” From October 4 to 10, Khalilzad held wide-ranging discussions and meetings with major stakeholders, but perhaps the most important event was his widely-speculated meeting with the Taliban at Doha. However, Afghan-born Khalilzad, who is also a former American ambassador to Kabul, faces immense challenges in his new job as there are multiple hurdles in resolving the Afghan conflict.
The most significant challenge is the negative reaction of Pakistan’s security establishment to his appointment. Making Pakistan’s frustration over his appointment public, Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, during a recent interaction in a Washington-based think-tank, could not stop himself from urging Khalilzad to be more sensitive to Pakistani opinion than he has been so far. According to Qureshi, the negative reaction in Pakistan to Khalilzad is because of the fact that he “has made statements in the past which have not been, to be put it mildly, very friendly to Pakistan… I would urge him to be more sensitive to opinion in Pakistan… Once you have an official position you have to be more restrained.”
But Khalilzad knows that Pakistan is the real source of increasing instability in Afghanistan. He has been very critical of Pakistan, calling on the United States to declare Pakistan a terrorist state. Writing a column in the National Interest in January 2018 immediately after President Donald Trump’s New Year tweet castigating Pakistan, Khalilzad was candid about Pakistan’s double game: “Islamabad’s duplicitous policy has been the single most important factor preventing success in Afghanistan. Ending Pakistani support for terrorists and insurgents is essential if we hope to reduce the terrorist threat in and from the region, contain the pernicious violence and achieve the negotiated settlement of the conflict in Afghanistan that will finally bring relief to the people of that country and allow our troops to come home.”
The Trump administration has taken a tough public stance toward Pakistan’s duplicity in the fight against terrorism. To Pakistan’s consternation, Washington has suspended almost all military assistance to the country, arguing that Rawalpindi must do more to eliminate Taliban safe havens inside its territory. Khalilzad’s appointment should also be seen as a part of American policy to pressurize Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
Relations between Islamabad and Washington remain stalemated. It is not clear what progress was achieved during Qureshi’s meetings with Pompeo and U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton during his just-concluded 10-day visit to Washington but the absence of a joint statement after the foreign minister-level talks indicates that the United States does not want to reduce the pressure on Rawalpindi at this critical juncture. Clearly, the United States wants Pakistan to put more pressure on the Taliban to bring them to the negotiating table, and the same message has been conveyed to Qureshi as well. Much against Pakistani wishes, the U.S. will continue to see bilateral ties with Pakistan mainly through the Afghan prism, as reflected in renewed demand by Gen. Joseph L. Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, to Pakistan to ensure “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.”
Khalilzad’s problems are compounded by the fact that the Taliban have not come up with a practical peace offer nor has the Ashraf Ghani-led Afghan government presented proposals that the Taliban could accept. Some of the other challenges are no less formidable. Regardless of how much support it gets from the United States, the Afghan government is not capable of defeating the Taliban insurgency and taking back the territory currently held by the Taliban. Without American firepower, the Afghan security forces will collapse immediately, and U.S. troops cannot remain in Afghanistan forever. The Trump administration, however, conceded a major Taliban demand of having direct talks with the United States instead of coming via Kabul when the Deputy Assistant Secretary Alice Wells reportedly met the Taliban’s political representatives in Doha this July. Khalilzad led the U.S. team at a second round of talks with the Taliban representatives again in Doha. According to the Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, the talks were “about the end of occupation and a peaceful resolution for the Afghan issue.” Khalilzad will have to perform a difficult balancing act between the Taliban and the Afghan government which has insisted on being involved in the process.
The idea of privatizing the war efforts has not found favor with the Afghan government. Military contractor Erik Prince tried unsuccessfully to convince several Afghan political figures during his recent Kabul visit. In fact President Ashraf Ghani’s national security adviser had to issue a statement: “Under no circumstances will the Afghan government and people allow the counterterrorism fight to become a private, for-profit business.” Khalilzad knows that private contractors would further erode the Afghan government’s legitimacy and fuel Taliban allegations that the Afghan war was being conducted for America’s financial benefits.
Geopolitical dynamics have become more complicated than ever before: Regional rivalries are not confined between just the United States and Russia or between India and Pakistan. China and Iran have also become active players. For Moscow, it is about acknowledging the reality that the Taliban cannot be eliminated militarily. Russians feel it’s better to make a deal with the Taliban now when it is clear that they are going to have a major share in Kabul government sooner or later. Moscow may have received the assurances from the Taliban that Afghan territory will not be allowed to become a base for jihadi radicals threatening the Central Asian republics. The Taliban’s fight against ISIS in Afghanistan is an added attraction for the Russians with Moscow identifying ISIS as the most important terrorist threat. Moreover, the Taliban’s promise to crack down on the drug trade once they are in power has also tilted Moscow in favor of the Taliban. Therefore, it is in Russia’s interest to push for a peace settlement which would guarantee the closure of American military bases in Afghanistan.
Although Iran stands to lose if the Taliban are back in power in Afghanistan, Tehran’s willingness to solicit the Taliban’s help in hitting the Americans hard has complicated the scenario. If the Trump administration plans to invade Iran or otherwise instigate regime change, then Tehran would be more than willing to provide the Taliban with whatever it takes to counter the United States. In other words, the Taliban is a potential Iranian ally in case of an open confrontation with the United States.
China also does not really want the Taliban to get emboldened since Beijing is fearful of the Taliban’s material and psychological support for the Uyghur insurgents. China’s biggest interest in Afghanistan is to ensure that the country does not become a breeding ground for jihadist extremism which could spread over to Xinjiang province. But the Chinese desire to ensure American departure from Afghanistan seems to have made Beijing adopt the Pakistani line that the Taliban deserves a significant share of power. It remains to be seen how Khalilzad navigates these geopolitical tangles.
Most importantly, it is Pakistan’s historical enmity with Pakistan that is likely to cause a headache for Khalilzad’s mission Afghanistan. India’s primary concern is the undesirable influence sought by Pakistan’s military establishment in Afghan political affairs. Ever since its creation in 1947, Pakistan’s ruling elite has sought influence over Afghanistan similar to that enjoyed by the British before partition. Islamabad wants the ultimate authority to decide who rules in Kabul and wants Afghanistan to hand over its decision-making power to Pakistan. Using one pretext or another, Rawalpindi continues to seek a pro-Pakistan regime in Afghanistan while insisting that Kabul cannot have close ties with New Delhi. For Pakistan’s military establishment, India remains its number one enemy and any step towards implementation of strategic partnership between India and Afghanistan is their worst-case scenario. This logic had prompted Pakistan’s military establishment to support Afghan mujahidin groups during the anti-Soviet jihad and the Taliban thereafter. This also explains Pakistan’s implacable opposition to even economic and cultural ties between India and Afghanistan.
Rawalpindi has been trying hard to convince the United States to eliminate any Indian role in Afghanistan. Even though not fully convinced, previous American administrations were not entirely unsympathetic to Pakistan’s paranoia about India. In the last few years, the United States began to appreciate India’s positive contribution in Afghan reconstruction and stabilization efforts. Khalilzad’s predecessor, Richard Olson, had disagreed with Pakistan’s concerns that India was using its presence in Afghanistan to stir trouble in Balochistan. During an interaction in June 2016 at a Washington-based think tank, the Atlantic Council, Olson said that “India has been a supportive partner for Afghanistan. It has provided a limited amount but important military assistance… I sometimes feel that the degree of Indian influence on Afghanistan may be overestimated in Pakistan.”
The Trump administration has openly praised India’s role in Afghanistan. Even during discussions regarding the impact of American sanctions on projects such as the Chabahar port, the U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of South and Central Asia Region, Alice Wells, did not forget to mention India’s positive role in Afghanistan: “We very much appreciate what India has done to provide both assistance to Afghanistan, including through using Chabahar Port for the delivery of wheat. We also very much appreciate what India has done to allow Afghanistan to diversify its trade relationships, and again Chabahar has played a role there.”
It will be impossible for Khalilzad to deal with Pakistan’s contrived paranoia. Pakistan is desperate to keep India completely out of any say in the reconciliation process. And it might not be possible for India to convincingly argue for a formal place in such a process. But New Delhi’s engagement with Khalilzad and his team regarding the Afghan reconciliation should remain a substantive one. Khalilzad is not unaware that Rawalpindi’s feigned anxieties about India’s strong ties with Afghanistan are nothing but a smokescreen for Pakistan’s ideological fixation with India. An overwhelming majority of Afghans understand the importance of their country’s more active engagement with India so that Pakistan’s Machiavellian manipulators cannot arm-twist their political leadership.
It is Khalilzad’s responsibility to ensure that the one-sided train from Washington carrying monetary incentives and political appeasement for Pakistan’s military establishment which has just come to a halt should not restart. It can be hoped that Khalilzad will bear this in mind while confronting the complaints from generals in Rawalpindi and mandarins in Pakistan’s foreign office about India’s role in Afghanistan. New Delhi’s major concern that Afghanistan does not become a base for Pakistan-based terrorist groups must be reflected in any negotiated settlement.
The Trump Administration is reportedly reviewing its Afghanistan policy and it had led some to argue that Pakistan would be able to assert its primacy once again after being relegated as the source of regional instability in the first policy statement. But the appointment of Khalilzad and his subsequent moves have underlined that the shift in American approach might be more fundamental than earlier assumed. Washington has to make some tough choices going forward but that may not mean going easy on Pakistan.