In a moment of triumph, the Pakistanis might even ‘forgive’ Trump for all the negative things he keeps saying about their country. Ever since the Soviets were pushed out of Afghanistan, Pakistan has been longing to bring the country completely under its influence so that the Pakistan army can concentrate on the eastern border to confront India, the ‘perennial enemy’, along with the jihadi terrorists at its beck and call.
Pakistan has already begun feverish diplomatic efforts allegedly to restore order in Afghanistan but actually to get an upper hand in dictating terms for the settlement of the long drawn Afghan conflict. Trump is preparing to virtually hand over Afghanistan to predators; he seems to have forgotten his own description of Pakistan as a country that lies and cheats.
Though it was largely ignored or underplayed in India, the India-baiting Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi recently spoke about India having a ‘crucial’ role in the Afghan ‘process’. That is actually against the official stand of Pakistan. If he still meant what he said then it can only be surmised that Pakistan is misleading the world by pretending to be genuinely interested in ending the Afghan crisis and accepting role in it for India. For Pakistan even India’s help in building the infrastructure in Afghanistan is anathema.
Trump’s Afghan policy looks incomprehensible: he wants a peaceful and stable Afghanistan but cannot see that it will not be possible if proxies from Pakistan take over Afghanistan. He wants India to play a bigger role in the reconstruction of the country but, again, does not realize that Pakistan opposes such a role tooth and nail and so do its proxies like the Taliban.
The US troop withdrawal in Afghanistan may be of a piece with the Trump decision to pull out his forces from Syria, another war ravaged country. That decision has surprised and shocked many American strategists and is widely believed to be behind the resignation of the Secretary of Defence, Jim Mattis.
The issues involved in Syria and Afghanistan are dissimilar. The war in Syria is a bit complicated with the US symbolizing Western efforts to dethrone the ‘oppressive’ Syrian President Bashar al Assad who has the backing of Russia, China and Iran. In Afghanistan, the on-going and long drawn conflict is between the US-supported Afghan government and the Pakistan-backed Taliban. The prize catch of Kabul is still out of the Taliban reach though it controls much of the Pushtun belt.
Disquieting hints have been coming out of Washington that it sees Islamabad as the key to the process of ‘reconciliation’ between Kabul and the Taliban. What kind of reconciliation can be expected when the Taliban, acting in concert with the Pakistan Army, refuses to acknowledge the duly elected government in Kabul and is not willing to negotiate with it directly?
Almost everyone with stakes in Afghanistan has said that an ‘Afghan-led’ process of talks with the Taliban and others will be the best way to herald peace. There have been many attempts by the US and Russia, official and unofficial, to bring the two parties to the table. Nothing concrete has come out of these efforts.
Now Pakistan has jumped into the wagon to facilitate talks between the Afghan government and Taliban. That is strange because Pakistan keeps saying that it has little or no influence over the Taliban. It looks even more strange when voices are being raised in Pakistan asking what will Pakistan gain by brokering Afghan talks. It plainly shows two things: Pakistan does have influence over the Taliban and what it wants in return for bringing the peddlers of dark ages to the negotiating table is an assurance that Afghanistan will be solely under its thumb. India has to be out.
The Taliban representatives have always sabotaged the talks for one reason or the other. The Taliban say that a pre-condition for talking to Afghan officials is complete withdrawal of US troops. They also refuse to officially engage in talks with Afghan representatives. But they have no reservations about talking to Pakistan or endorsing Pakistani initiatives.
The Taliban is not going to give up its medieval mindset. It is doubtful if it is capable of ushering in an era of peace, prosperity or even stability in Afghanistan. It propagates its own version of Islam which is rejected by most followers of Islam in the world. The forces in Pakistan that guide and mentor the Taliban are equally regressive.
It is, of course, true that the presence of US and other foreign troops in Afghanistan has not been able to defeat the Taliban even when the number of foreign troops was in six figures. The 15,000 or so US troops that are stationed in Afghanistan now have no combative role. They are there to protect US interests and train Afghan troops. There is not much that a depleted US presence could do to prevent the march of the Taliban when a big army of US and NATO troops had failed during 2001 and 2013.
It can also be argued that but for the subsequent ‘token’ presence of US troops the Taliban would have run over Kabul and completed the takeover of Afghanistan. The Afghan army is still considered not ready to fight off the Taliban though the Afghan government insists that its army is capable of meeting the Taliban challenge. The threat of instability will loom large even after the defeat of the Taliban if Pakistan continues to demand a dominant role in Afghan affairs.