Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 13 December 2019

Imran Khan heads to Washington as US bids for Afghan peace breakthrough

Securing Pakistan's help to speed up talks with the Taliban is top of America's agenda

Pakistani cricketer-turned-opposition leader and head of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), Imran Khan arrives at the Supreme Court in Islamabad on November 17, 2016. AFP
Pakistani cricketer-turned-opposition leader and head of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), Imran Khan arrives at the Supreme Court in Islamabad on November 17, 2016. AFP

America will use Imran Khan's visit to Washington next week to try to break deadlock in the Afghan peace process and urge Pakistan to get the Taliban to sit down for talks with Kabul.

Securing Pakistan's help to speed up talks is top of America's agenda for Mr Khan's first visit to the White House to meet US President Donald Trump, analysts and officials believe.

The former cricketer will be accompanied by leaders from the country's powerful military, allowing America to talk directly with the architects of Pakistani policy in Afghanistan.

Pakistan's powerful army chief, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, and Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, head of the country's military spy wing, are both reported to be accompanying Mr Khan.

Quickly securing a settlement which will allow American troops to leave Afghanistan is one of Mr Trump's main foreign policy objectives. He has decried the war as a costly blunder but he has also expressed reluctance to pull every American soldier out of the country, referring to it as the “Harvard of terrorists”.

But talks have apparently reached an impasse with the Taliban refusing to sit down with Ashraf Ghani's Afghan government until its US military backers have already left the country. Such a withdrawal would fatally undercut Kabul's negotiating position and usher in a forceful Taliban takeover or civil war, Western officials fear.

Pakistan has long been accused of harbouring and supporting the Taliban to exert influence in Afghanistan. Its sway over the militants is considered critical to forging a settlement.

“[Trump] will want Khan and Bajwa to say that Pakistan will make the Taliban sit with the Afghan government for formal negotiations in the next few weeks,” said one official familiar with the talks.

“The Pakistanis will say: 'We will do our best, but of course we have highly limited influence on the Taliban, all of whom are in Afghanistan...'”

Mr Khan is expected to spend more than two hours in the White House. His visit will also include a speech at a US think tank and a rally for his political party.

Yet the most important negotiations will likely involve the visiting generals, predicted Farzana Shaikh, a Pakistan expert at the Chatham House think tank.

She said: “I think it's common knowledge that Imran Khan's own presence at these talks will be for domestic consumption, while the real hard talk is going to happen between the military and their counterparts in the United States.”

Pakistan has expressed hope the meeting will reset a relationship which has drifted and is often beset by acrimony. America has railed at Pakistan's failure to rein in its extremist proxies, while still receiving huge sums of aid. In November, Mr Trump said he would cut aid because Pakistan did not “do a damn thing for us”. Pakistan in return has said it is tired of fighting someone else's war and accuses Washington of failing to appreciate the price it has paid for supporting US policy.

Recent weeks have shown each side apparently make small concessions to rebuild confidence. Islamabad earlier this month welcomed a US decision to designate Pakistani separatist militant organisation the Balochistan Liberation Army as a global terrorist group. Pakistan has long called for the proscription of the BLA, which has recently threatened investment by attacking Chinese business projects.

Earlier this week, Pakistan arrested a radical cleric suspected by America of masterminding the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Hafiz Saeed has a $10m bounty on his head and Pakistan's failure to put him on trial has helped poison relations with both America and India.

Mr Trump welcomed the arrest, but was mocked for saying it came after a 10-year search. Saeed has in fact been notorious for living openly in Pakistan, even holding rallies and press conferences.

Updated: July 18, 2019 06:54 PM