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Opinion: Trump Gave Pakistan What It Wanted, But Afghan Peace Is Far From Guaranteed

President Trump greets Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan at the White House on Monday.
Jim Watson
AFP/Getty Images
President Trump greets Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan at the White House on Monday.

Shamila N. Chaudhary (@ShamilaCh) is a fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies Foreign Policy Institute and senior fellow at New America. She served as director for Pakistan and Afghanistan on the National Security Council during the Obama administration.

On Tuesday, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan wrapped up a three-day visit to Washington, D.C., at the invitation of President Trump. The much-anticipated visit followed last year's cuts in U.S. aid to Pakistan and wrangling between the two leaders on Twitter, where Trump accused Pakistan of deceit and Khan retorted that Pakistan wasn't to blame for U.S. failures in Afghanistan.

And it was, of course, Afghanistan that figured centrally in Khan's visit, which took place as U.S.-led peace talks continue with the Afghan Taliban. When describing U.S. policy in Afghanistan in a talk on Tuesday, Khan invoked Albert Einstein's definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Khan wanted to let everyone know that under his watch and Trump's leadership, the insanity was now over.

By the time he wrapped up his visit, Khan had secured what Pakistan has always wanted: a seat at the table on Afghanistan, and the Pakistani perspective acknowledged. (Trump even said he'd like to mediate between India and Pakistan over the disputed territory of Kashmir, something India sees as a purely bilateral issue. The State Department later walked Trump's statement back).

The extent to which Pakistan will go to protect what it has gained this week remains to be seen, as does the extent to which the U.S. will want to keep Pakistan happy.

This week, Khan hinted at a future meeting in which he wouldengage directly with Afghan Taliban leadership. If so, such a meeting would present a tremendous opportunity for Pakistan to cement its seat at the table in the broader infrastructure of the peace talks. The United States will unequivocally appreciate and capitalize on the additional channel of communication to pressure the Afghan Taliban — something to which Trump alluded on Monday during his press conference with Khan.

"I think Pakistan is going to help us out to extricate ourselves," Trump said, later remarking that he preferred this to his "plans on Afghanistan that if I wanted to win that war, Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the Earth. It would be gone. It would be over in — literally, in 10 days. And I don't want to do — I don't want to go that route."

Khan likes to point out that he long supported a political solution in Afghanistan, before any other leader or government did. Likewise, Trump repeatedly calls out the failure of the Obama administration in prioritizing nation-building over ending the war. Their overlapping perspectives have created a convergence on Afghanistan in which Trump offers Pakistan a legitimate role — perhaps a longstanding one — in shaping the future of Afghanistan.

Pakistan's interest in Afghanistan's future relates to its concerns about the Indian presence there, which it believes poses direct threats to its security. Moving forward, India will continue to feature prominently in how Pakistan views Afghanistan.

But also driving Pakistan's interest in shaping Afghanistan's future is a pragmatic desire to gain influence in a rapidly fluctuating and complex geopolitical environment. When Pakistan looks to Afghanistan, it doesn't only see India. It also sees China, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other countries involved in a pursuit of transit routes, mineral extraction, port development and more.

Furthermore, no single country — namely, the United States — picks the winners and losers. Rather, current and future geopolitical competition in Afghanistan is defined by all countries playing all sides with each other, and by Afghanistan itself.

It is within this context that Pakistan must redefine itself from a pariah state that created and bolstered the Afghan Taliban — stoking U.S. anger and mistrust — to a collaborative, regional actor that engages all stakeholders and centers of power in Afghanistan and the region.

With these motivations in mind, Pakistan doesn't need to think twice about whether or not to pressure the Afghan Taliban to acquiesce to American demands for a cease-fire and engaging in an intra-Afghan dialogue.

The Trump-Khan view of how the war ends in Afghanistan strikes an important point — that Pakistan's interests and challenges in Afghanistan demand more attention than previous American governments afforded it. This week, Trump seemed to remedy that. But in the future, factors external to U.S.-Pakistan relations will test this spirit of renewed pragmatism.

Pakistan's strained relations with the Afghan government, the Afghan government's own intra-Afghan dialogue and the involvement of other interlocutors such as China all demand a careful diplomatic approach that considers the multiple relationships in play. To date, those relationship dynamics fluctuate from friendly and collaborative to antagonistic and disengaged. The future likely holds more of the same. And if the United States and Pakistan move too fast on their track, Pakistan will lose what little political space and legitimacy it holds with the Afghan government — and the United States will lose another avenue toward pressuring the Afghan Taliban.

Khan and Trump's focus on Afghanistan this week overshadowed the question of Pakistan-based militancy, which might have yielded more criticism from the Trump administration had Pakistan not recently detained anti-India militant leader Hafiz Saeed — and had Trump been less eager to take credit for it, as he did on Twitter.

Herein lies a fundamental roadblock in Pakistan securing its seat at the table: American demands of Pakistan to fight militancy extend beyond the Afghan Taliban to include Pakistan-based groups that threaten India. The White House fact sheet covering Monday's Trump-Khan meeting says as much: "Pakistan has taken some steps against terrorist groups operating within Pakistan. It is vital that Pakistan take action to shut down all groups once and for all."

Previous U.S. governments have similarly pursued Pakistan's collaboration in Afghanistan alongside asking Pakistan to eliminate the ability of Pakistan-based militants to operate on its territory. In that regard, the Trump administration is no different, offering Pakistan a say on Afghanistan in exchange for action against the likes of Saeed, who has been jailed and released numerous time before. Neither the Bush nor Obama administrations succeeded in pursuing both. The chance for failure remains high for Trump as well.

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Shamila N. Chaudhary