U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s Twitter announcement that the United States has called off peace talks with the Afghan Taliban after the group claimed an attack that also killed one American soldier was a surprise to the world this weekend. Already, a lot has been written about the merits and demerits of the terms of the peace process and how a potential deal in its current form between the U.S. and the Taliban could affect Afghanistan’s future.
While those who didn’t want a deal made with the Taliban have called Trump’s announcement the right decision, regional players invested in getting the peace process closer to settling an official agreement have been caught off-guard. The decision will have implications for Pakistan’s interests in the region and beyond.
Pakistan is one of those states that wanted to see the deal go through. For Islamabad, the cancellation of the talks has come as a surprise. About a week ago, Washington’s special representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, publicly talked about the draft agreement, settled between the United States and Taliban. Less than a week ago, a U.S. delegation visited Islamabad to review the terms of the final agreement too.
Arguably, the unilateral decision may have dented Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban. For months, Pakistan has pushed the Taliban in the direction of reconciliation. The group may have not made many concessions but Islamabad has played a huge role in getting the talks this far. It may seem like a minor detail, but it’s important to note that Trump’s tweet didn’t mention Pakistan’s name as a party to blame. That is indirectly an acknowledgment of Pakistan’s work for the peace process.
However, this may not last for long. Expressing shock toward Trump’s decision, a high-ranking official from Pakistan’s policymaking circles said this: “No one informed us about the decision. What about our efforts which have gone into the process?” The impression in Pakistan’s policymaking circles is one of disappointment. The next time the Pakistanis want the Taliban to make concessions or begin negotiations with the United States, the group won’t be as receptive to Islamabad’s requests. Regardless of what changed in Washington that lead to Trump’s cancellation of the talks, the decision is going to further erode U.S. credibility when it comes to getting Pakistan’s help to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table. “Why should the Taliban take Islamabad’s commitments seriously when the U.S. can unilaterally withdraw from any deal?” said a former ambassador while talking to The Diplomat.
An agreement between the U.S. and Taliban would not only vindicate Pakistan’s longstanding position over the conflict but can also keep the country’s position central in the wake of American troops withdrawal. Currently, there are two facets of Pakistan’s assistance for the Afghan peace process. One is tied to the situation at hand, focused on the dialogue between the U.S. and Taliban. The other concern is what comes after a deal is struck between Washington and the Taliban. With the former, Pakistan’s interests, domestic and regional, stood to gain in immediate terms while the latter, mostly dealing with the intra-afghan phase, covers aspects which are far complex and may not find a solution anytime soon.
For Pakistan, a “no deal” situation may lead to Washington’s loss of interest for some of Islamabad’s concerns. The Kashmir situation is one area which may face a setback from Pakistan’s perspective. If the decision to cancel talks was strategic, the issue of Kashmir may not find a lot of space in the corridors of power in Washington. Arguably, Afghanistan is the reason that initiated a conversation over the Kashmir conflict and what it means for Pakistan. Moreover, if the setback lasted for three to six months, the window may cost Pakistan a very important timeline concerning the two countries bilateral relationship. In November 2019, Pakistan faces a huge challenge at the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and Washington’s assistance at the forum could become vital. In one of my previous articles here, I wrote the following:
Islamabad received assurances that the U.S. will not undermine Pakistan’s case at the FATF. Arguably, if materialized, the U.S. support or softening of its position at FATF concerning Pakistan’s case is one of the major wins for Islamabad. it’s important to note that Islamabad is going to be expected to deliver something major on Afghanistan if the current narrative is to last a few months… It remains to be seen if the Afghan peace process makes any major headways in the coming weeks as the situation is going to have a direct impact on Pakistan’s position at the FATF.
For Pakistan, the cancellation of the talks couldn’t have happened at a worse time. The month of September is very important at the United Nations (UN). The formalization of the deal could’ve practically lifted Pakistan’s image to a state that secured Washington’s exit from Afghanistan. Any such outcome would have ensured more space for Pakistan’s Kashmir narrative at the forum and a meeting between President Trump and Prime Minister Imran Khan was certain to follow which now seems improbable.
From here onward, Pakistan would want two things to happen. First, Islamabad would like the talks to resume as quickly as possible, if possible, in days rather than weeks or months. Second, Pakistan would aim to avoid the blame game that may unfold in the coming days concerning who is to blame for the cancellation of talks. For now, the debate stands in the bilateral realm, involving the United States and the Taliban. For Pakistan, the good thing is that there still exists an interest in restoring the peace process from the U.S. side. No one in the Trump administration is calling the Taliban a terrorist group or asking for the group’s isolation again. Unless Washington wants to pack its bags and leave Afghanistan completely with an intention of not coming back ever, Pakistan’s Afghanistan impact will remain central for the United States.
Still, one cannot rule out a tweet from Trump blaming Pakistan for not securing a ceasefire or reduction in violence in Afghanistan. If that happens, Islamabad would be in a bad place, again.