US officials converge on Pakistan seeking Afghan peace

After a successful mission to Turkey this weekend on US President Trump’s behalf, his leading Republican ally Senator Lindsey Graham is reportedly heading for Islamabad on a similar mission seeking rapprochement with another truculent erstwhile ally of the US. Senator Graham, interestingly, used to be a hardliner on Afghanistan who once believed that a US withdrawal from Afghanistan could lead to a “second 9/11 coming our way.”

What makes Senator Graham’s trip to Pakistan significant is that he is most likely bringing Trump’s imprimatur into the terms of a settlement. (Also, Senator Graham is a ranking member of the US Senate Armed Services Committee.)

Earlier on Sunday, the US commander of the CENTCOM General Joseph Votel also landed in Rawalpindi and met the Pakistani army chief Gen. Qamar Bajwa. Meanwhile, the US special representative on Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, accompanied by the Senior Director for South and Central Asia in the White House Lisa Curtis, has been camping in Islamabad since Wednesday. Khalilzad was also received by Gen. Bajwa and Prime Minister Imran Khan.

All indications are that the endgame in Afghanistan is accelerating. Through the past 4-month period, Khalilzad carried the baton of the US’ engagement with the Taliban as far as he could. He did succeed in giving traction to the peace talks with the Taliban. But he lacks the stature to carry the momentum forward. Neither Pakistan nor the Taliban – assuming they are entirely different entities – feels confident that they are talking to the correct guy.

The point is, Khalilzad is an appointee of the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and it is unclear how authoritative his negotiating stances or opinions can be. Of course, a senior White House official is accompanying him, but as it is, the Trump administration has a notorious reputation of speaking in multiple voices. On issues of war, particularly, even Trump’s word may not necessarily be the last word. There is bound to be some unease in the Pakistani and Taliban camps.

Besides, Khalilzad also didn’t help matters when he made making some intemperate statements recently from Kabul threatening the Taliban with dire consequences if it didn’t engage in intra-Afghan dialogue. He might have been acting tough deliberately or merely grandstanding, but an irate Taliban promptly announced that it wouldn’t meet him in Islamabad.

Of course, a remorseful Khalilzad backtracked on Saturday, probably on Pakistani advice, but the damage has been done. The Taliban simply turned its back on him. Khalilzad is now finding himself in the unenviable position of having to beseech Pakistan to somehow bring the Taliban back to the negotiating table. Apparently, heeding Pakistani advice, he is camping in Islamabad waiting for the Taliban to show up.

Pakistan’s public stance is that there are limits to its ability to influence the Taliban. Whether this is dissimulation or merely a partial truth is a matter of opinion rather than judgment. But there are some signs that Pakistan is getting impatient with the Taliban. During the past week, some prominent Taliban figures living in Pakistan have been detained; Taliban’s official website has been summarily shut down following a statement on January 18 criticizing Khalilzad.

However, Taliban’s apparent intransigence may also work well for Pakistan, as it makes Washington almost entirely dependent on Islamabad’s willingness to help it advance the endgame in Afghanistan. But then, there are the Taliban demands as well – a definite timeline for withdrawal of US troops, release of Taliban prisoners and an end to the travel ban on Taliban leaders. On the US side, too, there are demands – a reduced military presence for a foreseeable future to conduct counterterrorism operations and, secondly, an intra-Afghan dialogue.

(US commander Gen. Joseph Votel met Pakistani army chief Gen. Qamar Bajwa at GHQ, Rawalpindi, Jan 20, 2019)

The unannounced arrival of Gen. Votel in Rawalpindi today would signal that the military components of a settlement are under active discussion. No doubt, the US plans to withdraw forces from Afghanistan. But the real sticking point here is about any US military presence at all in post-settlement Afghanistan. There isn’t any acceptance of such a US military presence even in reduced form among the regional states (except, perhaps, India.) Iran and Russia strongly oppose any residual US military presence in the region. A compromise formula may emerge in the nature of a multinational force under the UN banner to conduct any counterterrorism operations in the post-war setting.

To be sure, a defining moment is approaching in the next several weeks.Time is of the essence of the matter, since the security situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate and there is a leadership vacuum in Kabul, while, on the other hand, Trump himself is bent upon extricating the US from the “endless wars”.

If the dots get connected, which increasingly seems doable, we may expect an interim or neutral government in Kabul soon and a country-wide ceasefire. That, in turn, would signal the commencement of intra-Afghan dialogue to flesh out the power-sharing arrangement under the settlement, and mark the start of the vacation of western occupation of Afghanistan.