A year after U.S. President Donald Trump announced a new strategy seeking an “honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices” in Afghanistan’s war, Washington is still grappling with the longstanding problem of how to address neighboring Pakistan’s role in the conflict.
In August 2017, Trump reserved some of the toughest language in his new strategy speech for Islamabad. “Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists,” he said. Trump also announced plans to strengthen his country’s strategic partnership with India, Pakistan’s regional archrival.
A year later, the war in Afghanistan is at a virtual stalemate, and Pakistan holds the key to whether the Taliban insurgents it has sheltered and supported for decades join the peace process or continue to fight for their avowed aim of forcing the United States to withdraw its troops.
“Pakistan is key to the solution in Afghanistan,” General John Nicholson, commander of the NATO-led Resolute Support mission, told journalists on August 23. “The Taliban enjoy freedom of action there [in Pakistan]; they occasionally come from there, and casualties are taken back there. These are things we are concerned about.”
This support has deteriorated Islamabad’s relations with Washington over the years. Relations between the two took a downturn after Trump announced his strategy and Washington suspended military assistance to Islamabad.
“The United States has 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,” Trump wrote on Twitter in January. “They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”
U.S. officials continue to prod Pakistan to change its approach toward Afghanistan. “We have encouraged Pakistan to take stronger steps to ensure that the Taliban either come to the negotiating table or [are] expelled back into Afghanistan rather than enjoy a safe haven outside the country,” U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells told journalists on August 20.
Despite a recent easing of tensions between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Pakistan’s powerful military, the two neighbors are far from embarking on a sustainable path to resolving their problems. After this month’s botched Taliban attempt to overrun Ghazni, a strategic city in southeastern Afghanistan, Afghan officials blamed Islamabad for supporting the offensive.
"General Bajwa, you signed a document with us and told me repeatedly in our conversations over the phone that when the elections [in Pakistan] are over you will pay attention to it,” Ghani said of his recent telephone conversation with General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the head of the Pakistani military. “I need answers now. ... Where did they come from, and why are they receiving treatment in your hospitals?"
Islamabad, however, rejects supporting the Taliban. A recent statement by the Pakistani military said Bajwa has reiterated there is no Pakistani support for any terrorist activity inside Afghanistan.
“Pakistan continues to support all initiatives aimed at bringing peace in Afghanistan as there cannot be enduring peace in Pakistan and stability in the region if there is no peace in Afghanistan,” the statement said.
In Washington, however, few buy such denials. Like previous administrations, Trump’s is expected to continue highlighting Islamabad’s covert support and sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban as a top impediment to peace in Afghanistan.
Barnett Rubin, an academic and former U.S. State Department adviser, says Trump’s strategy has not altered Pakistan’s behavior because of Washington’s constraints. “The reality that the U.S. depends on Pakistan for logistics and access to Afghanistan has prevented the escalation of pressure on Islamabad,” he said.
Rubin has spent decades researching Afghanistan and advised the late Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. President Barack Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He says the strategy has so far made no major strides in paving the way for ending the Afghan war through talks because of Washington’s relations with China, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan.
“Without these countries’ cooperation, there can be no stabilization in Afghanistan,” he said. “The U.S.’s pursuit of confrontational rather than cooperative policies with all of these countries is likely to make success in Afghanistan impossible.”
Pakistan is joining Iran, China, and Central Asian countries in a meeting on Afghanistan in the Russian capital, Moscow, early next month. With the Taliban participating, Kabul and Washington are staying away from the event.
Washington, however, is expected to soon appoint Afghanistan-born former ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad as the new special envoy for Afghanistan. The 67-year-old has been involved in U.S. Afghan policy since the 1980s.
As a presidential envoy and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan after the demise of the Taliban regime in late 2001, Khalilzad frequently criticized Islamabad for playing a double game by providing some assistance to the United States to pose as ally while harboring and supporting its enemies: militant groups such as the Taliban.
Years later, his views have not changed.
"The United States has arrived at what the Afghans have been saying for a long time -- which is that Pakistan's policy toward Afghanistan, terrorism, and the fight against terrorism is not genuine," he told Radio Free Afghanistan in January.
His main challenge now will be to steer Washington’s policy toward addressing Pakistan’s role in the Afghan conflict.