When President Donald Trump announced his new Afghanistan strategy in a speech in August, it seemed that US-Pakistan relations were set to hit a new low. New developments, however, signal that, behind the scenes, the Trump administration is working to develop a nuanced regional approach to Afghanistan. This approach may create some common ground between the US and Pakistan and help salvage the downward trend in relations.
While announcing his strategy, Trump used unusually strong language to blame Pakistan for supporting cross-border terrorists, particularly the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban. The Pakistani public and policymakers in Islamabad were particularly incensed by his remarks on welcoming the expansion of India’s role in Afghanistan. Important high-level visits to Pakistan by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Chief James Mattis followed Trump’s speech in early December. These visits took place in an environment of recrimination and mistrust on both sides. There was widespread speculation that the American top brass wanted to convey a tough message and show US resolve to change Pakistan’s hedging on Afghan Taliban sanctuaries and the presence of the Haqqani network on its territory.
Despite these very public divergences over fighting terrorism in Afghanistan, there have been some developments related to the new US policy on Afghanistan, which signal that at least on some areas the two countries have been able to find some common ground and ways to move forward.
The first of these relates to regional diplomacy and India’s role in Afghanistan. In the past few years, India has expanded its security relationship with Afghanistan, which has alarmed Pakistan. Islamabad has, over the years, tried to inform the US of its sensitivities regarding India’s support for anti-Pakistan militants, especially Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is based on Afghan territory. At the same time, Pakistan has conveyed its openness to India’s economic role in Afghanistan’s development and has been supportive of energy projects such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Pipeline project, which is designed to deliver Turkmen gas to India.
There are some early signs that the Trump administration, especially the Pentagon, may be more responsive to this message from Pakistan.
The first sign came on Nov. 20, when the US Department of Defense put pressure on key Congressional committees to drop a provision linking financial aid to Pakistan with Islamabad taking demonstrable action against Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which is an India and Kashmir-centric militant group. Pakistan had conveyed to the US top brass that linking Haqqani with LeT amounted to shifting the goalposts for Pakistan and inserting the Indo-Pak counter-terror agenda into the Afghan conflict. This eased some misgivings within Pakistan’s leadership over the inclusion of India’s role in Trump’s speech.
Despite some very public divergences over fighting terrorism, there have been developments which signal that the US and Pakistan have been able to find some common ground.
Dr. Simbal Khan
The expansion of India’s security role in Afghanistan has been detrimental to Pakistan’s interests and has led to a diminishing of Islamabad’s relationship with key policy enclaves in Kabul, especially Afghanistan’s military and the security sector. But the first meeting between senior Pakistani and Afghan military officials in early December in Rawalpindi indicated positive movement in Pak-Afghan security relations. During the important military-to-military meetings, the Pakistan side formally shared proposals for establishing joint working groups that will allow both countries to address each other’s concerns on all key issues. The countries had originally agreed to the formation of the groups during talks between Pakistani Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa and President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul on Oct. 1. The groups are to discuss diplomatic, military, intelligence, economic and refugee issues. Most importantly, military chiefs from both countries have also held talks under the same arrangement.
The second set of key developments relates to regional economic competition in Afghanistan. Last week’s announcement in Kabul that two Indian companies have been selected to start work on the CASA-1000 power project in Afghanistan is significant. The Indian companies are expected to begin with the installation of transmission lines in a month’s time. The $2.6bn ADB and World Bank-supported Central Asia-South Asia power project will allow for the export of 1,300 megawatts of surplus hydroelectricity from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to Pakistan and Afghanistan. The project has been in the planning stage since 2010 and the breaking of the ground took place on May 12, 2016.
Many officials involved in the project had privately conceded that one reason for the slow uptake from the Afghan side was the strong influence of the Indian business lobby in Kabul over Afghanistan’s key economic sectors. India and Afghanistan has long demanded from Pakistan direct land access for Indian goods to Afghan markets, which Pakistan has so far resisted. The Indian lobby in Kabul reportedly worked to slow down progress on all South-Central Asia connectivity projects that terminated in Pakistan. The inclusion of Indian companies in CASA-1000 may indicate there can be creative ways for moderating India-Pakistan competition in Afghanistan. The Trump administration has an opportunity to leverage regional diplomacy to create a new momentum for peace in Afghanistan.
• Dr. Simbal Khan is a political and security analyst and a South-Central Asia specialist, with experience in regional security and development spanning 20 years. Her work has focused on issues related to trans-border militant movements in South-Central Asia and the geo-politics of border spaces. She is also a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS) Islamabad. Twitter: @simbalkh