The Middle East has always been a difficult region for the West, especially for the United States. During the Cold War era, America’s efforts to establish its hold over the region’s key oil-producing countries backfired, resulting in anger and resentment in those countries. Be it the CIA-backed coup to overthrow the Mossadegh government in Iran for nationalizing the oil industry in 1953 or Charlie Wilson’s war to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan in the 1980s, the results have been devastating for the U.S. The repercussions from these American campaigns continue to resonate even today in Afghanistan and Iran. Are the two connected in any way?
Afghanistan has been the theater of America’s longest war—19 years of violent fighting have claimed the lives of 2,400 American soldiers—and the end is still uncertain. There have been as many ups and downs in the peace process as there were in the war when it was launched just two months after 9/11 in 2001. Few in the U.S. recall that what has happened in Afghanistan in this century was in reality an offshoot of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s strategy of making Afghanistan the “Soviet Vietnam.” The Taliban of today are the mujahedeen of yesterday, who were trained and armed by the CIA, along with Pakistan’s spy agency, the ISI.
The negotiations between the Americans and the Afghan Taliban that opened in August 2018 have followed a tedious, off-again-on-again course. Facilitated by a Pakistan under tremendous economic pressure and under threats of sanctions, the talks in Doha, Qatar, were expected to bring peace tidings and lead to the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Instead, they ended in September 2019 with a presidential tweet from the White House calling off both the talks and a previously unannounced summit that was to take place at Camp David between the Taliban leadership and Donald Trump. The reason Trump gave at the time was that the Taliban had killed an American soldier, but as Trump is known to be whimsical, it was impossible to determine for sure what had offended him.
As unexpectedly as the negotiations had been called off, they have since been pushed back on track. Why? Anyone’s guess. Trump made a sudden unannounced dash to Kabul on Thanksgiving Day and let it be known that the stalled Doha talks would be restarted—and they were, a week later.
This time, the move has been a quieter one, and it appears the U.S. has moderated its stance somewhat to ensure positive results. For instance, the emphasis is no longer now so much on a ceasefire in Afghanistan as on the lowering of violence. Still, intra-Afghan talks will ultimately have to be held so that a political agreement is reached among various Afghan groups as well as between the government in Kabul and the Taliban. How these complexities will be resolved is not clear. The post-election standoff between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah is another complicating factor.
Meanwhile, Pakistan has played its cards well. It has kept itself aloof from all the parties entangled in the war while nudging them toward the negotiating table. Even Trump is pleased with Pakistan, which he had characterized as a liar and a cheat. He declared Tuesday, during his trip to Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum summit, that the U.S. and Pakistan are getting along very well, and that the two have never been closer.
What has endeared Pakistan so suddenly to the U.S.? The fact is that the crisis in Iran earlier this month has shaken Washington, and again Pakistan emerged as the mature and sensible state in the region looking to smooth ruffled feathers. The provocative element was Trump, who proved to be the bull in the china shop. First, he ordered the Jan. 3 assassination of Iranian’s star general, Qassem Soleimani, creating a huge reaction in Tehran. The Trump administration accused Gen. Soleimani of planning attacks on U.S. embassies, but no evidence of this plot has been produced. Gen. Soleimani was struck by a missile while on a visit to Baghdad. Iran reacted by firing missiles at an American base in Baghdad.
Violence could have spiraled out of control had sanity not prevailed. Iran pulled out of the nuclear treaty that it had signed with the P5+1—that is, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. One of former President Obama’s top diplomatic achievements in 2015, the nuclear agreement had led to the lifting of sanctions against Iran and brought a measure of stability to the region. Enter Trump, who pulled the U.S. out of the pact in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran. The Middle East is back to square one.
The two powers locked in this test of strength mercifully pulled back from the brink. We may not know for some time what transpired behind the scenes. But when Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, dashed off to Tehran and thereafter to Washington, this was on display for the world to see. Pakistan has maintained a longstanding relationship with Iran. The two countries have helped each other in times of need, and history, culture and economic ties have sustained strong bonds between them.
Is it, then, surprising that Trump made a U-turn at Davos and had such warm words to say about Pakistan’s friendship with the U.S.? One can expect Islamabad to demand a price—and voices have been raised to that effect. Pakistan’s Qureshi has already made it clear that when the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan, it must leave a token presence in that country so that Pakistan is not sucked into the vacuum that is created, as happened in 1988 when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan.
A senator has suggested that the government should demand a quid pro quo for its diplomacy in averting further bloodletting in the region. This should be in the form of assistance in getting Pakistan out of the grey zone in which the Financial Action Task Force has categorized it. Prime Minister Khan requested Trump to help in this matter, which he apparently did. At the FATF meeting in Beijing, Pakistan escaped being pushed into the black list as it had been feared.
For Pakistan, the biggest achievement stemming from the latest meeting between Trump and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was Trump’s promise to address the Kashmir issue that has left India in turmoil and cast its shadow on Pakistan as well.
At the Pakistan Institute of International Affair’s 70th anniversary inaugural session, the proceedings were conducted in Urdu. Why can’t we use our local languages in our educational system, at least at the…