The United States has turned to Pakistan in its bid to wind down the 18-year war in Afghanistan. As long as Pakistan cooperates and pushes the Afghan Taliban to cooperate, Islamabad's ties with Washington will improve. But Pakistan's own strategy in the region will limit how much pressure it is willing to apply on the Taliban.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan's first meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in the White House struck a positive tone July 22 despite bilateral relations long beset by rancor and suspicion. Khan later thanked Trump on Twitter for his warm and gracious hospitality. Trump meanwhile offered to help mediate Pakistan and India's long-running dispute over Kashmir, a suggestion that Khan welcomed but New Delhi criticized. The cordial exchanges stand in sharp contrast to the jabs the two leaders traded on the social media platform in 2018, when Trump accused Islamabad of lies and deceit and Khan pointed to Washington's "failures" to win the war in Afghanistan.
Why It Matters
The meeting highlights a shift from the previously harsh U.S. approach to extracting cooperation in the Afghan peace process from Pakistan. In August 2017, for example, Trump publicly chastised Pakistan for offering a haven to militants operating in Afghanistan, such as the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network. The United States also used punitive measures, such as cuts to security assistance and threats to revoke the country's non-NATO major ally status, to elicit Pakistani cooperation.
Since then, Pakistan — where some of the Afghan Taliban's leadership indeed shelters — has pushed the insurgents to join multiple rounds of talks with the United States aimed at finalizing a peace deal. Seeking to build on this momentum, Trump has dangled the prospect of improved relations with Pakistan, hoping to induce Islamabad to use its influence to push the Taliban into accepting a permanent cease-fire and engaging in talks with the NATO-backed government in Kabul.
Trump has dangled the prospect of improved relations with Pakistan, hoping to induce Pakistan to use its influence to push the Taliban into accepting a permanent cease-fire and engaging in talks with the NATO-backed government in Kabul.
But any Pakistani support for the Afghan peace process will not come at the expense of Islamabad's ultimate aim of shaping a friendly government in Kabul respectful of Pakistan's strategic concerns. These prominently include preventing Afghanistan from building a stronger relationship with archrival India, and compelling Afghanistan to renounce any claims to Pakistani territory by acknowledging the legality of their de facto 2,640-kilometer (1,640-mile) shared border. Because Pakistan wants the Taliban to advance these interests in a post-conflict Afghanistan, it will be careful not to pressure the Taliban to accede to U.S. wishes to the extent that it alienates the Taliban.
The health of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship hinges on the extent of Pakistan's security cooperation in the war in Afghanistan. The United States has relied on access to Pakistani territory for its overland military convoys to landlocked Afghanistan. But Pakistan has played a double game and also backed the Taliban. Since October, the United States and the Taliban have held seven rounds of talks centering on four issues: a U.S. troop withdrawal, a Taliban pledge not to permit transnational extremist groups to operate in Afghanistan; a permanent cease-fire; and a commitment to dialogue with the central government in Kabul aimed at reaching a power-sharing agreement between Kabul and the Taliban.