Imran Khan is known for his relentless anti-American messaging. He has threatened to shoot down American drones, and he has lambasted Pakistan for using “American money” to fight “America’s war” against terrorism.
He has opposed the idea of targeting terrorists with force, and he has expressed sympathy for the Taliban insurgency that America is fighting in Afghanistan.
A populist politician in Pakistan, once in power, can’t be expected to eliminate this rhetoric, which plays well on the Pakistani street but not in the corridors of power in Washington.
And yet, amid these obstacles, there lies an opportunity for US-Pakistan relations. And Khan is well qualified — perhaps even uniquely qualified — to capitalise on it.
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For the US, relations with Pakistan are always seen through the lens of Afghanistan. One reason the US government hasn’t walked away from Islamabad despite all the tensions and frustrations of recent years is that it desperately wants Pakistan to help it pursue its goals in Afghanistan.
From Washington’s perspective, Pakistan hasn’t been terribly helpful, mainly because it has not addressed America’s concerns about Afghan insurgents allegedly based in Pakistan. And for years, American troops have tried but failed to tame the militants that Washington accuses Pakistan of harbouring.
But now, a dramatic shift in US policy is underway. After nearly 17 years, US officials are finally realising that the war cannot be won militarily, and that seeking a negotiated outcome is the only viable Plan B.
America’s new Plan B for Afghanistan has always been Pakistan’s Plan A — or at least Islamabad has stated as much publicly. Until now, the two countries’ plans had never been in alignment.
Washington has now agreed to pursue direct, bilateral talks with the Taliban. A round of exploratory negotiations reportedly took place in recent days, when a US government delegation led by America’s top South Asia diplomat, Alice Wells, met with Taliban representatives in Qatar.
America’s top ask of Pakistan is now something on which Islamabad — and Khan in particular — can not only deliver, but will presumably be keen to deliver on. And that ask is to convince the Taliban that now is the time to formally commit to peace talks to end the war.
Khan would not support any action that could be construed as doing America’s bidding. And yet cooperation with Washington on Taliban reconciliation talks should be an easy sell for him, and for two reasons.
First, such a move serves Pakistan’s interests. It would represent a step toward ending a war that has destabilising spillover effects in Pakistan (from cross-border terror to refugee flows and drug trafficking).
And it could get Pakistan closer to one of its desired endgames in Afghanistan: a post-war arrangement under which the Taliban enjoy a degree of political influence.
Second, helping push for Taliban reconciliation talks would be in line with Khan’s own personal preferences. One of his consistent positions in recent years is that militants — in both Pakistan and Afghanistan — should be targeted with negotiations, not force.
Additionally, Khan has infamously telegraphed his sympathies for the Afghan Taliban by praising their fight as a “holy war” justified by Islamic law.
All of this should give Khan good standing among the Taliban, increasing the possibility that the insurgents would listen to his government.
In effect, Khan’s perceived soft side for militants, rightly considered by many to be a liability, can also be an advantage. The qualities that inspire the moniker “Taliban Khan” could actually help serve US and Pakistani interests in Afghanistan — and, in the process, help boost US-Pakistan ties.
None of this is to say that a Khan-led government cooperating with Washington on Taliban reconciliation issues would magically make the bilateral relationship warm and fuzzy.
Washington’s “do-more” drumbeat, its fixation on the Haqqani network, its unhappiness about the alleged presence in Pakistan of India-focused terror groups — and above all its allegations against Pakistan of sponsoring various US-designated terrorists — these will all remain major irritants in the US-Pakistan relationship.
But for now at least, the Trump administration has set aside those tension points. The Taliban peace talks issue —something on which both the US and Pakistan now see eye to eye — has been placed on the policy front burner.
And herein lies the opportunity for Khan: he can capitalise on one of the few shared goals in the US-Pakistan relationship and help reinvigorate a sputtering partnership.
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To be sure, this could all come crashing down. The Taliban could well shrug off Pakistan’s requests. Yes, there’s reason to believe Pakistan’s outreach to the insurgents has already worked to an extent; the Taliban’s recent decision to declare and honour a brief ceasefire can be attributed in part to Islamabad’s efforts.
Still, at the end of the day, the insurgents have little incentive to seriously commit to peace talks to end a war that they firmly believe they’re winning. That incentive structure remains in place no matter who may try to convince them to step off the battlefield.
But, at this moment at least, Pakistan’s incoming prime minister has a golden opportunity to cooperate with America to help bring a bloody and interminable war in Afghanistan to a merciful end.
Time will tell whether he chooses to seize it, and, if he does, if such a decision will pay off — and bring some badly needed relief to a region where peace and stability have long been elusive.
Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @michaelkugelman