When President Donald Trump met Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan at the White House last week, he boasted that he could win the 18-year-long war in Afghanistan “in a week.”
“I just don’t want to kill 10 million people,” Trump said. “If I wanted to win that war, Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the earth. It would be gone. And I don’t want to go that route.”
Translated from Trumpspeak, the president apparently meant that the United States could bomb Afghanistan back to the Stone Age if he wanted to oust the Taliban by military means. Never mind that the Afghan people – presumably the 10 million -- aren’t our enemies, and we have been fighting alongside Afghan army troops against the Taliban for nearly two decades. A horrified Afghan government asked for “clarification.”
The point the president was really trying to make was that he wants Pakistan to help America quit Afghanistan. The Pakistani military and Inter-Services Intelligence have long been the Taliban’s key backers. So Trump hopes Pakistan will help special U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad wrap up a deal with the Islamists.
But banking on Pakistan to deliver its proxies is like inviting the Taliban to take Kabul. Judging by the tone of his sit-down with Khan in the White House, the president is ripe to get played.
Keep in mind that Pakistan has served as a safe haven for Taliban leaders for nearly two decades. Without Pakistani arms and training of Taliban fighters – and the ability of those fighters to regroup on Pakistani soil – the Afghan civil war would have ended long ago.
“If Pakistan wants to help [end the Afghan war] they should stop providing the Taliban with safe haven,” says Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington and Hudson Institute fellow. “There is no sign they are doing so.”
Early in his administration, Trump seemed to grasp that point. “We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. That will have to change,” he said in August 2017, and went on to cut military aid to Islamabad.
So why was he so eager to butter up Imran Khan?
The president wants to finish with America’s “endless wars.” That’s understandable, and indeed the public supports him. The issue, however, is how we finish, and what we leave behind.
“If you need any more proof we are headed for the exits, this is it,” says former U.S. ambassador to both Pakistan and Afghanistan Ryan Crocker of the White House meeting. “We need help from Pakistan so it won’t look so ugly. We are taking a close look at the Paris playbook.”
Crocker is referring to the 1973 U.S. peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese that bought Washington a “decent interval” before Hanoi mounted a military invasion of the south and took Saigon two years later
By acceding to Taliban demands for bilateral negotiations without the presence of the Afghan government being present at talks, and while the Taliban keep fighting, “we are surrendering, putting the best face on it to get President Trump through the election and get Afghanistan off the front pages. This will buy us two years.”
I asked Crocker whether he believed the Taliban, or its Pakistani ally, would keep Islamist terrorists from basing in Afghanistan once Washington quit the country. “Hell no! Are you kidding?” was his instant reply.
At the White House meeting, however, Trump praised Khan’s claim that Pakistan was cracking down on Islamist terrorists. “After a ten year search, the so-called ‘mastermind’ of the Mumbai Terror attacks has been arrested in Pakistan,” trumpeted the president.
Yet, anyone with basic knowledge of South Asia knows that, despite his links to this monstrous attack in India that killed 160 people, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed moves openly around Pakistan, and still leads a political movement. He is temporarily arrested and then released when Pakistani officials want to please Western officials.
Moreover, Pakistan has never apologized or admitted any complicity in the harboring of Osama bin Laden for five years near its premier military academy. Instead, Khan repeated Pakistan’s strange complaint that Washington didn’t inform its government in advance of the operation to kill bin Laden. What better way to guarantee his escape?
There’s nothing wrong, however, with seeking Pakistan’s aid in delivering the Taliban to the table. But buying into Pakistan’s proclaimed bona fides, and making concessions up front to its proxies won’t bring peace to Afghanistan. Nor will stiffing the Afghan government, and prematurely pulling out the last several thousand U.S. troops, whose long-term presence guards against the return of ISIS or al-Qaeda.