Afghanistan: US Withdrawal Narratives Getting Better –With Pakistan Help

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Pakistan’s equities in the region not only include decades of efforts for durable peace in Afghanistan but also struggle for the resolution of Kashmir dispute.

IRSHAD SALIM (Islamabad) — America’s poster boy for withdrawal from Afghanistan and regional peace, Zalmay Khalilzad speaking at the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace (USIP) think tank said that there’s been a “positive change” with Pakistan’s actions in regards to helping facilitate talks with the Taliban. “We appreciate what they’ve done so far.”

Assisted by Pakistan behind-the-scene but in a central role, the US and the Taliban held six days of talks in January in Doha, and both sides touted “progress”. Though U.S. and Taliban representatives have met numerous times over the years, this marks the first time they have reached a framework agreement.

During the same period–toward the end of January–US Senator Lindsey Graham, visited Islamabad and is believed to have discussed with Pakistani leaders a proposal for a free trade agreement (FTA) in return for Islamabad’s assistance in ending the Afghan war.

A week later, Commander of the US Central Command General Joseph Votel told a Congressional hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington DC. that Pakistan has taken positive steps to assist Special US Representative of Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad in facilitating talks with the Taliban who want negotiated timeline for foreign troops withdrawal.

The US General said America’s military strategy for South Asia includes assuring Pak­istan that its “equities” are acknowledged and addressed in any future agreement in Afghanistan–according to some observers, Pakistan’s equities in Afghanistan and the region also include struggle for Kashmir resolution which if unaddressed could remain a destabilizing factor.

The Centcom chief also told American lawmakers that Pakistan as a state possessing nuclear weapons sits at the nexus of Russian, Chinese, Indian, Iranian, and US geopolitical interests, and therefore will always be a country of importance to the US.

The uptick in good feel factor being generated regarding negotiated peace in 17-year war-torn Afghanistan comes as the U.S. and the Taliban are coming closer to an agreement that could include withdrawing troops, The Washington Post reported Monday.

Senior Republican Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) who is close to the White House, said Thursday that the U.S. had secured a victory in Afghanistan because it “got bin Laden” and “disrupted the people who attacked us.”

He was commenting on Trump’s Afghan withdrawal strategy, and  said it was “ludicrous” for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to call taking troops out of Afghanistan and Syria “precipitous.”

But some GOP lawmakers remain concerned over President Trump‘s reluctance to listen to top military and intelligence advisers.

The Trump administration instructed the military to begin removing troops from Afghanistan, two officials told The New York Times last month, though the White House contradicted that report.

But in recent days, the United States and the Taliban–with Pakistan assistance, have reportedly agreed to a framework for a potential deal – one that could involve the Taliban denying space to international terror groups and to provide the Americans a face-saving exit from Afghanistan.

The framework agreement comes several weeks after President Donald Trump wrote to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan seeking his country’s proactive assistance in ending the unwinnable war in Afghanistan which has cost American taxpayers nearly $1 trillion and Pakistan more than $230 billion in economic losses.

PM Khan had said–he got elected in July 2018–that “Pakistan would only ally with the US for peace in the region, and not for war”.

Gen. Votel told lawmakers that US has strategic focus on reconciliation and regional security and therefore if Pakistan plays a positive role in achieving a settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan, “the US will have opportunity and motive to help Pakistan fulfill that role, as peace in the region is the most important mutual priority for the US and Pakistan”.

Noting that ‘regionalization’ was a key part of the US strategy for Afghanistan, the general said: “Pakistan, in my estimations, has played a more helpful role, a more constructive role in helping us move forward towards this objective.”

A year earlier on New Year eve, President Trump had accused Pakistan through Twitter of deceiving the United States and harboring terrorists while accepting billions of dollars in foreign aid.

Trump’s message had ignited a flurry of reactions online from those concerned with foreign policy in the region. However, in stark contrast to his January 1 tweet, in October last year, Trump lauded what he saw as a new opportunity to shake hands with Pakistan: “Starting to develop a much better relationship with Pakistan and its leaders. I want to thank them for their cooperation on many fronts.”

(The writer is a Pakistani-American business consultant and analyst presently based in Islamabad)

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