Pakistan grapples under US pressure to bring Afghan Taliban to table; disobeying Donald Trump may douse IMF bailout hope

The United States is desperate to ensure the least dishonourable exit from Afghanistan, which has been rightly termed not only as the ‘graveyard of empires’, but also the ‘graveyard of careers’. The US president Donald Trump’s Afghan strategy seeks to make sure that US forces leave Afghanistan sooner than later. As part of that strategy, the US principal deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, Alice Wells is in Islamabad right now. Her meetings with Pakistan’s ruling elite assume significance due to several important events happening simultaneously. Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan has just returned from China where he could not secure much-needed loans from his country’s ‘all weather’ friend. Moscow-backed talks on the Afghan conflict are going to take place on 9 November where the Afghan Taliban, the Kabul government and several neighbouring countries will participate. A delegation from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is beginning a two-week trip to Islamabad to finalise the possible bailout package.

Pakistan grapples under US pressure to bring Afghan Taliban to table; disobeying Donald Trump may douse IMF bailout hope

Alice Wells. Reuters

The US has been keenly following the recent developments in Pakistan-China relations. The focus of Imran’s maiden trip to Beijing was on securing a huge amount of ‘assistance’ for Pakistan. Since nothing of that sort happened as China is having its own financial problems due to the ongoing trade war with the US and moreover there is no free lunch in China’s diplomatic lexicon, Pakistan is again desperate to secure a bailout from the IMF. But it is easier said than done since it comes with unbearable conditionalities which Imran can no longer avoid. The US has the trump card in this bargaining with Pakistan as it holds a large voting share in the IMF.

The US has vocally and openly expressed its displeasure over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, insisting that Pakistan’s current economic woes are mostly due to the geopolitical dimension of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) whose important component is the CPEC. Not long ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had warned the IMF not to approve any bailout package for Pakistan if it was meant for repaying the Chinese loans. Besides putting the CPEC projects under the scanner, the IMF will also seek greater details of the loans Pakistan has obtained from China, hardly a palatable sight for Pakistan’s security establishment. It, therefore, remains to be seen how the CPEC will be introduced to more areas of Pakistan as China claimed during Imran’s visit. Beijing’s lofty promises of ‘iron friendship’ and support for inclusion in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) cannot save Pakistan from the critical financial crisis.

Here comes the opportunity the US has been waiting for. The main focus of Wells’ Pakistan visit is to ‘reset’ troubled relationship between Washington and Islamabad since diplomats of both the two countries are struggling hard to find a common ground on the Afghan endgame. Both sides continue to remain suspicious of each other’s strategic agenda in Afghanistan, and their policies have largely operated at cross purposes even as they profess the opposite. Pakistan’s security establishment has been trying its best to ward off American pressure but seems to have been left with very few options. Wells will undoubtedly demand greater compliance from Pakistan’s security establishment on the Afghan front if Islamabad wants to secure American acquiescence to the looming IMF bailout package.

What is hardly hidden from the public gaze is that the Trump administration wants Pakistan’s help in bringing the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table so that a way could be found where American troops withdraw from Afghanistan without any threats to the survival of the US-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani. If Pakistan cannot convince the Afghan Taliban, as demanded by the Trump administration, it must take decisive military action against their leadership taking shelter on its soil. However, Trump is unwilling to tolerate the status-quo which has bled the US economy and negatively impacted America’s global prestige.

The US has already stepped up its diplomatic efforts in this direction. America’s special Afghan envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been extremely busy in the shuttle diplomacy in the region. He has also been in touch with the Taliban’s political office in Qatar; he held direct talks last month with the Taliban representatives in Doha. Due to persistent demands from the US and Afghanistan, Pakistan had to release a key Taliban figure, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was deputy to the late Taliban Supreme leader Mullah Omar. Baradar had served in several key positions when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. He was arrested in 2010 from Karachi in a joint US-Pakistan operation. The Afghan Taliban has confirmed Baradar’s release, although there is no official word from Islamabad.

The outcome of America’s diplomatic efforts cannot be predicted as yet. However, India cannot remain as a mute spectator to what has been happening on the Afghan front. Since India has a direct stake in the evolving Afghan scenario, New Delhi must emphasise during its regular interactions at various platforms with Washington that appeasement would prove to be a decidedly costly policy towards Pakistan. Last month marked the 80th anniversary of the notorious Munich Agreement, which has become synonymous with the dangers of appeasing megalomaniacal tyrants and authoritarian ideologies. If the British and the French had resisted Hitler, it could have possibly prevented the outbreak of World War Second.

Appeasement of Pakistan’s military establishment by successive American administrations has made South Asia one of the most insecure, unstable places on earth besides magnifying the problem of terrorism, particularly in India and Afghanistan. Throwing diplomatic caution to the winds, he is the first American president to openly target Pakistan’s duplicity. Who can forget Trump’s New Year tweet: “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. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” In fact, his drastic, unconventional approach has unnerved Pakistan’s security establishment which fears unravelling of a profitable military alliance that was born during the Cold War and renewed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Trump’s frustration with the prolongation of the Afghan conflict and his desperation to ensure American exit from Afghanistan is understandable. But he must not avoid overhauling the way the US has conducted business with Pakistan. It is time to stop pretending that the US can work constructively with Pakistan unless Rawalpindi delivers on Afghanistan. Pakistan’s hands are tied at the moment and it is equally desperate to normalise the US-Pakistan ties. This situation must be exploited by the Trump administration at a time when China seems reluctant to bail out Pakistan.

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Updated Date: Nov 07, 2018 11:00:57 IST

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