The hot-and-cold relationship between the United States and Pakistan seems to be warming once again. On July 22, U.S. President Donald Trump will host Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan at the White House to discuss cooperation between their countries. Just last year, the meeting would have seemed unthinkable. Trump lambasted Pakistan in a harshly-worded New Year's tweet — accusing the South Asian country of "deceit" and being a "safe haven" for terrorists. But since then, Pakistan has used its influence over the Taliban to push the movement into peace talks aimed at ending decades of bloodshed in Afghanistan.
Islamabad and Washington have always viewed the war through different perspectives, putting them at odds over the years. But throughout all the ups and down, the glue that has held their alliance together has been Pakistan's strategic importance to the Afghan conflict. Though even that shared interest may be dissolving, should the peace process ultimately bring an end to the 18-year war.
Security has long been at the heart of U.S.-Pakistani relations. Islamabad and Washington joined forces to arm the anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan in a proxy conflict of the Cold War, before resurrecting their alliance in 2001 as part of President George W. Bush's global war on terrorism. However, the long-term trend still points to a weakening relationship between the two countries — with the Afghan conflict winding down as the United States seeks closer ties with Pakistan's nemesis India.
A Fickle Alliance
Washington's invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was initially aimed at dismantling its Taliban-led government and destroying al Qaeda, perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. The country's landlocked geography forced the United States to rely on Pakistan — the principal sponsor of the Taliban — to provide overland access for NATO convoys ferrying equipment into Afghanistan. But Pakistan's support has come at a steep price, with the United States doling out over $33 billion in aid to it over the years.
Despite U.S. support, Pakistan has continued to aid the Taliban in Afghanistan, which it sees as a vital counter against two major threats to its territorial integrity. First, Pakistan wants its northwestern neighbor to accept their current shared border as permanent (the Afghan government has never recognized the Durand Line, which was established in 1893, as the border). And second, Pakistan wants to prevent archrival India from aligning with Kabul to aid separatists in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, which borders Afghanistan. Islamabad sees installing a government in Kabul that will respect its interests as the solution to both of these problems, hence its unwavering support of the Taliban — much to the dismay of the United States.
A New Approach
This role as both the Taliban's ally and Afghanistan's gatekeeper has, in turn, placed Islamabad on both sides of the 18-year Afghan conflict — in the process warping its relationship with Washington, including the current White House. Although Trump was initially in favor of withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, he ended up going in the opposite direction at the advice of his generals, who argued that additional air forces and ground support were needed to tip the stalemate against the Taliban and in favor of the U.S.-backed Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.
During his first major foreign policy address in August 2017, Trump announced that the United States would be sending reinforcements to the conflict. In the same speech, Trump also included a pointed message for Islamabad, saying that the United States could "no longer be silent about Pakistan's safe havens for terrorist organizations." Then in January 2018, Washington announced it would also maintain the suspension of $1.9 billion in aid to Pakistan — continuing the withdrawal of U.S. security assistance that began under President Barack Obama.
Even with Trump's "'mini-surge,"' the balance on the battlefield in Afghanistan remained unchanged — prompting the White House to opt for a more diplomatic approach to finally bring the war to an end. In the summer of 2018, the United States decided it would lead future negotiations with the Taliban, thus marking a notable shift in Washington's long-standing posture of supporting talks led by the NATO-backed National Unity Government in Afghanistan. As part of this proposition, the United States for the first time indicated its willingness to discuss the presence of NATO troops in the country (currently totaling about 22,000 personnel). Afterward, U.S. diplomats made several visits to Pakistan in the hopes of securing its help in the negotiations.
As a sign of its support, Pakistan released Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a founding member of the Taliban, from prison in October so that he could represent the group in subsequent rounds of peace talks. The negotiations between the United States and the Taliban remain ongoing. No concrete deal has resulted, but both sides have cited progress on the issues up for discussion, which include: a permanent cease-fire, a Taliban counterterrorism pledge against transnational extremist groups operating in Afghanistan, the withdrawal of U.S. troops, and a commitment to keeping dialogue with the Afghan president (whether it be Ashraf Ghani or his successor) open.
The Shifting Winds in South Asia
Trump's recent invitation to Khan is essentially a reward for Pakistan's cooperation in the peace talks over the past 10 months. Their meeting will mark a significant diplomatic victory for the Pakistani prime minister, who hopes to broaden the U.S.-Pakistani relationship beyond its traditional security focus to encompass greater trade and investment opportunities. But as he tries to navigate his country's place amid the shifting power dynamics in South Asia, Khan also sees the possibility of Pakistan's strategic significance once again receding in the eyes of the United States — especially as Washington seeks to strengthen its ties with its biggest enemy (India) to stem the growing influence of its biggest ally (China).
Without an active conflict in Afghanistan, there will be little keeping Washington from turning toward more pressing issues in the region — namely, China's rise.
But until then, both Washington and Islamabad will remain focused on advancing the Afghan peace process in a manner that supports their respective interests — with the United States seeking to wind down its longest-running military conflict, while Pakistan continues to pursue its quest for shaping an Afghan government that will adhere to its national security concerns.