Is the US bypassing Pakistan for new Taliban strategy? | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 30.05.2018
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Is the US bypassing Pakistan for new Taliban strategy?

The US has decided to seek "the right Taliban leadership" without waiting for Pakistan to play its role in persuading the rebels to join peace talks with the Afghan government. Anwar Iqbal reports from Washington.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revealed a new strategy for Taliban negotiations at a congressional hearing earlier this week, where he also claimed that US officials and diplomats were "being treated badly" in Pakistan.

"The effort (is) to apply all elements of the United States' government pressure, so that the Taliban will come to the negotiating table," he told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "Now we need to find the right leadership inside the Taliban to participate in those discussions."

The two statements – about mistreatment of diplomats and going ahead with the Afghan peace process without Pakistan – confirm that relations between the two allies are at their lowest ebb.

Marvin Weinbaum, a scholar of South Asian affairs in Washington, recalled that earlier this month, both the US and Pakistan also imposed strict travel restrictions on each other's diplomats.

"What strikes me most is that both sides are taking actions toward resident diplomats in a way usually reserved for a country's enemies, not its partners," he told DW.

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A new power arrangement

But what Secretary Pompeo told the House committee goes beyond diplomatic tensions and underlines Washington's need to find a peaceful solution in Afghanistan before public pressure in the US against this unpopular war forces the Trump administration to pull out from the strife-torn country.

Pompeo said that once the goal of finding the right Taliban leadership is achieved, the US administration will bring "lots of different groups" together to form the next power structure in Afghanistan. To bring them on the table, the Trump will assure each of these ethnic and tribal groups that their interests will be protected in the new power arrangement in Afghanistan, he said.

This was one of those rare statements in which a senior US official did not emphasise Pakistan's role in supplementing US efforts for bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan.

But a State Department spokesperson, when contacted by DW, said the US still wants Pakistan to "take irreversible and decisive actions to eliminate any and all sanctuaries on its territory, from which terrorists are able to mount attacks in Afghanistan and the region."

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While Pakistanis agree in principle with the US position, they point out that they have already lost more than 50,000 civilians and soldiers in the fight against terrorism and they do not want to jump into yet another unending war.

They argue that sooner or later, the Americans will leave Afghanistan and they will be left alone to face the consequences. Both in public statements and private conversations with their American counterparts, Pakistanis insist that there's no military solution to the Afghan conflict.

US officials also say that there's no military solution but they argue that this is why they want Pakistan to work with US and Afghan forces to make the Taliban realize that they too cannot win this war.

"We can see that there is not a military solution to achieving the stability and peace in Afghanistan," Pompeo said, adding that this is why Washington wants to pressurize the Taliban into cooperating with international efforts for bringing peace to the war-ravaged country.

Pompeo noted that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was willing to participate in the peace talks with the Taliban and the next step would be to find the right Taliban leadership, which would work with the government in Kabul.

"We have lots of different groups that need to view being part of the solution" and they need to be included in this process as well, Pompeo added.

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Other options

Pakistan's relations with the US, already strained, have rapidly deteriorated under the Trump administration, which has stopped all military assistance to the country over its alleged links with the Haqqani network. And recently, the administration also distributed a questionnaire among senior US lawmakers, asking them how they want Washington to deal with Islamabad, once a strong ally in the war against terror.

"Relations between the United States and Pakistan can be challenging at times," said the State Department spokesperson. "We engage on a daily basis with Pakistan in an effort to foster a strong strategic relationship."

But such a relationship must be based on "our many shared interests, maintaining a continuous and intensive dialogue through both civilian and military channels," the US official added.

"Both Pakistan and the United States have benefitted greatly in the past from our relationship, and we hope that it has a bright future as well," said the spokesperson, adding that to ensure this, Pakistan must take a decisive action against terrorists.

Michael Kugelman, another US expert on South Asian affairs, noted that the relationship between the US and Pakistan has struggled and suffered in a big way ever since President Trump announced his new South Asia strategy last August.

"And it will make it all the more difficult for the two sides to recapture the requisite trust and goodwill to move forward and bring a semblance of stability to the bilateral relationship," he told DW.

Washington's effort to find a solution in Afghanistan without involving Pakistan also endorses this view, indicating that the Trump administration does not see its relations with Islamabad improving any time soon. And it wants Pakistan to realize that while its support is important, Washington has other options too.

Read more: 'China and Russia want US out of Afghanistan'

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