Today’s talks between US President Donald Trump and a Pakistani delegation at the White House could mark an important inflexion point in the evolution of India’s north-western frontiers. As Trump seeks to end America’s longest war ever in Afghanistan, Pakistan has an opportunity to reset its troubled relationship with the US, rearrange its regional policy and seek reconciliation with Kabul and Delhi.
Although Pakistan’s leadership has given verbal support to these goals for some time now, Washington, Kabul and Delhi have all been sceptical about Islamabad’s willingness to match words with deeds. In the recent past, Pakistan has certainly teased the US and the South Asian neighbours with some steps — like facilitating talks between Washington and the Taliban and detaining Hafiz Saeed of the LeT.
Briefing the press before the talks, senior US officials said Pakistan will have to “change its policies” towards terrorism and militancy if it wants to rebuild a productive relationship with America. While noting some of the steps that Pakistan has already taken, US officials say these must be made “irreversible and sustainable”.
In Delhi, though, there is entrenched cynicism about the prospects for genuine change in Pakistan. There is also a persistent fear that the US will once again be taken in by Pakistan’s political dissimulation. That is not surprising, given India’s historic experience. Yet, Delhi needs to keep an open mind on the new phase of engagement between the US and Pakistan.
But first to the unusual composition of the Pakistani delegation. When he arrives at the White House, Prime Minister Imran Khan will have the army chief General Qamar Jawed Bajwa and the head of the ISI, Lt General Faiz Hameed in tow. Purists will shake their heads at an Army Chief sitting with the civilian head of government in the negotiations with a major foreign interlocutor. It is not that anyone is in doubt about the army’s control of Pakistan national security policies.
Yet it is interesting that PM Khan is sharing the limelight at the White House with the army chief. He probably had no choice in the matter. For Washington, it is better to have the army and ISI chiefs sitting in the room along with the PM and committing themselves to specific deliverables than having to deal with each of them separately. (One wonders if Bajwa and Hameed will agree to tag along with Imran if and when Pakistan’s premier gets a chance to sit down with Prime Minister Narendra Modi! That might make the India-Pakistan talks more credible. We are now getting ahead of ourselves.)
The Pakistani delegation has a long list of “asks” from Trump: A say in the political future of Afghanistan, American support in getting India to resume talks, restoring bilateral military assistance, facilitating international economic assistance to overcome the current macro-economic crisis, stop the imposition of additional terror-related sanctions. What does Pakistan offer in return?
On New Year’s Day 2018, Trump tweeted that America had “foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools.” Since then, Trump has cut off most of the military assistance and ratcheted up the financial pressure on Pakistan. By the end of 2018, Trump was ready to engage the leadership of Pakistan. In December 2018, Trump wrote a letter to Imran Khan asking Pakistan’s help in negotiating a peace settlement in Afghanistan. In January 2019, Trump said he wants to have a “great relationship” with Pakistan, but insisted that Islamabad’s support to US enemies is not acceptable. As it confronted the American wrath, Pakistan agreed to nudge the Taliban into talking to the US. But can Bajwa and Khan really deliver on a peace deal in Afghanistan that satisfies Trump and meets his electoral calendar?
Before getting to peace in Afghanistan, Trump has a much smaller but an important ask from Bajwa — “freedom for Shakil Afridi”. Shakil Afridi was the doctor who helped locate Osama bin Laden through his door-to-door anti-polio campaign. After the US forces raided and killed bin Laden in May 2011, Pakistan locked up Afridi and is said to be treating him rather badly. Afridi’s suffering and the inability to end it rankles Washington.
The second ask from Trump is about the peace talks with the Taliban. Washington wants the Pakistan Army to get the Taliban to accept a permanent ceasefire in Afghanistan. Trump’s Special Envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, however, has struggled even to get the Taliban reduce the level of violence. Nothing makes America look politically diminished in Afghanistan than Washington’s calls for peace amidst the Taliban’s relentless attacks on the innocent civilian population. The US also wants the Taliban to talk with the Afghan government on the transition to new political arrangement. After much effort, the Taliban agreed to let Kabul’s representatives participate, but only in a personal capacity, in an intra-Afghan dialogue earlier this month. The Taliban continues to trash Kabul as a “puppet regime” of Washington.
That brings us to the essence of the negotiations at the White House — about what General Bajwa can deliver on regional peace and what he wants in return. Although Bajwa badly needs to improve ties with Washington, it is by no means clear if the Pakistan army has the will and ability to deliver a seemingly insolent Taliban.
Whatever the outcome of the talks between the US and Pakistan, Delhi will have enough room to respond effectively. In the 20th century, India simply fulminated against the US-Pakistan relationship, opposing its very existence. In the 21st, Delhi has been a lot better at coping with the shifting US-Pak dynamic and occasionally turning it into an advantage for India. Delhi must now be more ambitious and actively shape the triangular relationship with the US and Pakistan.
The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express