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Why Afghans are skeptical of Trump's Pakistan outreach

Masood Saifullah
July 23, 2019

US President Donald Trump discussed the Afghan conflict with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Monday at the White House. Both the Trump-Khan meeting and some of US president's comments didn't go down well in Kabul.

Pakistani PM Khan held talks with US President Trump on Monday in Washington
Image: picture-alliance

The 19-year-long Afghan conflict was the main topic during the meeting between US president Donald Trump and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Monday.

Read more: Opinion: Khan-Trump meeting – will Islamabad deliver to Washington?

Washington wants Islamabad to help resolve the conflict, so that US troops can exit the war-torn country. Also, the US wants to ensure that a post-withdrawal setup would not pose a threat to its interests in the region.

Pakistani Prime Minister Khan, and the accompanying army chief General Qamar Bajwa, need US' financial assistance amid their country's worsening debt crisis. 

But Afghan authorities have long been critical of Pakistan's alleged support to Islamist terrorists that launch attacks on local and foreign troops, as well as civilians, on Afghan soil. Trump has expressed similar views in the past. 

Pakistan, experts say, wants a bigger role in the future of Afghanistan, as it has a considerable influence over the Taliban. All this is being watched with a lot of skepticism in Kabul.

Read more: Imran Khan's US visit — Afghan peace to dominate talks with Donald Trump

Trump angers Afghans

On top of everything, Trump made a controversial remark about Afghanistan, which angered Kabul even further.

Talking to the media next to Khan, the US president said that he could "easily win the [Afghan] war but he did not want to kill 10 million people."

The comment was possibly a message to Pakistan and other regional players that although the US is seeking assistance from other countries to resolve the conflict, this should not be mistaken as a weakness.

But the office of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani swiftly condemned Trump's remarks and sought clarification from Trump.

"Talking about the possibility of dropping more bombs and killing millions of people does not serve any good purpose," Faiz Mohammad Zaland, a lecturer at Kabul University, told DW.

"Afghanistan maybe poor and war-ravaged but no superpower has been able to wipe it off the face of the earth," he added.

But there are few who think that Trump's remarks are being misinterpreted. Sadiq Patman, a former advisor to President Ghani, believes Trump only meant to highlight the significance of peace in Afghanistan.

"Americans were able to remove the Taliban regime in a matter of days. They did the same in Iraq. Now we should come together and make the peace process a success," Patman told DW.

Read more: Kabul University hit by deadly bomb blast

Can Pakistan help US in Afghanistan?

Can Pakistan be trusted?

Since coming to power in 2016, Trump has made no secret of his desire to withdraw troops from Afghanistan as soon as he can. His administration has started direct talks with Taliban in Qatar, where the militant group has a political office.

Washington expects Pakistan to use its influence on the Taliban and force them to agree to a cease-fire. Many security analysts say that Pakistan's powerful army helped create the Taliban in the early 1990s, and that it continues to support at least some factions of the group.

Both Trump and Khan expressed hope about the progress in talks with the Taliban. Khan even said that the international community has never been so close to a peace deal with the insurgents.

"And I hope that in the coming days we will be able to urge the Taliban to speak to the Afghan government and come to a political solution," he added.

Despite these optimistic statements, Ahmad Saidi, a former Afghan diplomat, sees major challenges for the peace process in the coming months. "Pakistan has made such promises in the past and did not deliver on them, so there is no guarantee that this time it would be any different," Saidi told DW.

"Also, the Taliban don't always obey Pakistan, therefore Khan cannot make sure that they talk to President Ghani's government," he added.

But some Afghan analysts are cautiously optimistic about Pakistan's support for the peace process. "Khan was accompanied by his military chief to the US. It indicates that this time both Washington and Islamabad mean business," Patman said.

"But Khan now has to demonstrate that his government can deliver on his promises, otherwise relations between Islamabad and Washington will get worse again," Patman added.

Read more: Is Pakistan's war-ravaged northwestern region turning against the military?

Afghan Peace Breakthrough?

Is Afghan government being sidelined?

The Trump-Khan summit in Washington has raised concerns in Kabul and Afghanistan's political circles.

"While the Afghan government supports the US efforts for ensuring peace in Afghanistan, the government underscores that foreign heads of state cannot determine Afghanistan's fate in absence of the Afghan leadership," Ghani's office stated.

Ghani is particularly worried about his isolation from the ongoing peace talks between the Taliban and the US. What makes the Afghan president more concerned, experts say, is the possibility that Islamabad convinces the Taliban to engage with opposition politicians and not the elected Afghan government.

"Such a scenario will only prolong the Afghan war because without the Afghan government's direct involvement, Islamabad would be competing with Kabul," said Saidi.

Read more: Afghanistan: President Ghani seeks to restore his legitimacy with a Loya Jirga

There are already signs of opposition to an Afghan peace deal with an increasing Pakistani involvement. Last week, former Afghan President Hamid Karza told a peace conference in Kabul that he was in full support of peace but "could not accept a deal between two countries" on Afghanistan's future.

"Trump wants to leave Afghanistan at any cost and wants Pakistan to act as its agent," Kabul University lecturer Zaland said, adding that such an agreement could only lead to more bloodshed in Afghanistan and make it more unstable.