Khan-Trump call

November 23, 2019

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WHERE Pakistan-US ties are concerned, many critics have described the relationship as transactional. It is often said that Islamabad has helped Washington carry forward its policy goals in South Asia and the broader region in exchange for material benefits. This may not be an erroneous impression. Still, it is a rather simplistic way of looking at things. From opening the doors to communist China for America to aiding the US in the anti-Soviet ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan, Pakistan has had a long and complex relationship with the world’s sole superpower. Where Afghanistan is concerned, perhaps the realisation has dawned upon those that matter in Washington that without Pakistan, stability will be hard to achieve in that country. In a phone call on Thursday, President Donald Trump thanked Prime Minister Imran Khan for Pakistan’s role in a prisoner exchange, in which Afghan Taliban detainees were swapped for two Western academics. During the call, Mr Khan also asked the US leader to continue mediation efforts with New Delhi with reference to Kashmir.

While it is true that Mr Trump’s foreign policy agenda lacks stability (his country has withdrawn from several key multilateral agreements under him), the American leader is interested in bringing the long Afghan war to a close, chiefly for domestic reasons. The American establishment realises that the Afghan war is more or less unwinnable, and is, therefore, looking for a workable exit strategy to save face and ensure that the country does not turn into a haven for militant groups. The Americans also know that Pakistan has some leverage over the Afghan Taliban, and that any final settlement involving Washington, the Taliban and the government in Kabul will be very difficult to achieve without Pakistan’s help. Therefore, Pakistan’s leadership must communicate clearly to the US that it will do what it can to bring peace to Afghanistan. But the situation in India-held Kashmir cannot be ignored either. While Afghanistan can become a regional security risk should it implode, IHK can also become a trigger for war between two nuclear-armed states.

Pakistan’s leadership must impress upon the Americans that they should use their good offices with India to help forge a solution to the Kashmir question, which is the key to peace in South Asia. Admittedly, India stubbornly claims that Kashmir is an ‘internal’ issue, but despite its tough talk, it is doubtful it has the wherewithal to resist American ‘advice’ to talk peace with Pakistan. Strictly speaking, the conflict between the Taliban and Kabul is also an ‘internal’ issue. But that hasn’t stopped all regional states, as well as the US and others, from urging the hostile actors to make peace. If the US is serious about stability in all of South and Central Asia, then it must emphasise the importance of dialogue with Pakistan with the same seriousness as it pursues an Afghan settlement.

Published in Dawn, November 23rd, 2019