In Afghanistan, surging violence has worsened the sluggish pace of peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government, jeopardizing a potential settlement to end the country’s decades of war. Reducing the bloodshed is a necessary step toward building trust for ongoing negotiations—a fact complicated by the fact that the Taliban view fighting as their primary source of leverage over the Afghan government.
Pakistan—by virtue of its long-standing relationship with the Taliban and their senior leaders, many of whom have resided within its borders—is arguably best positioned to persuade the Taliban to dial back the violence. But Islamabad is playing a game of chicken with Washington by pretending it cannot exert additional pressure over the Taliban. If the Biden administration wants any chance at persuading Pakistan to push the Taliban to reduce violence, then it is going to have to act quickly and make some tough decisions.
Pakistan helped to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table in Doha but stopped there. Rather than pushing the Taliban for an outright reduction in use of force, Islamabad has instead opted to tacitly support the Taliban’s bargaining position to enter into a cease-fire only on certain conditions: further concessions by Kabul and the departure of U.S. troops.
The country’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, recently said as much during a Jan. 26 phone call, when he told his Afghan counterpart that pushing talks forward would “facilitate [a] reduction in violence, leading to [a] ceasefire.” On Jan. 21, Khan’s adviser, Moeed Yusuf, reiterated that “Pakistan in itself can’t get a [Taliban] ceasefire.” This statement echoes previous claims that Pakistan could not convince the Taliban to negotiate with Kabul. So long as negotiations continue and U.S. troop levels do not increase, Islamabad may believe it is sitting pretty, regardless of the violence Afghans face.
There are several reasons why Pakistan may not want to pressure the Taliban further. For one, Islamabad is sensitive to what it characterizes as years of thankless pressure by Washington to “do more.” It avers that its influence over the Taliban was reduced by the appointment of hardliner Abdul Hakim Ishaqzai as the Taliban’s chief negotiator to vigorously tow the line of Taliban chief Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada and the group’s military commission, neither of which is ready to stop fighting. Some analysts agree with this assessment.
Islamabad also claims it has avoided taking a more coercive approach for fear that such action could have serious domestic security consequences—the Afghan Taliban could turn their guns on Pakistan by partnering with Pakistan’s own violent extremists, including sectarian groups and the Pakistani Taliban, formally known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban. And it is widely assumed in Western reporting that parts of Pakistan’s military establishment share sympathies for the Taliban’s struggle, another factor that potentially complicates Islamabad’s willingness to pressure the group. But the Pakistani public generally opposes the group, and diplomatic ties are waning too.
Despite Islamabad’s hesitations, the prevailing view in Washington is that by bringing the Taliban to the table without convincing them to reduce violence, Pakistan sold the Trump administration a car without an engine.
Of course, changing the status quo is not easy. Replicating the failed “maximum pressure” campaign used on Iran, as some proposals suggest, would be a grave U.S. error in Pakistan. Too much pressure, such as threats to designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism if the government does not sufficiently attempt to coerce the Taliban to tone down violence, not only would be a policy of questionable proportionality but also would lead Islamabad to dig in its heels. By contrast, a no-strings-attached “strategic love and affection” would end in free-riding. Instead, the Biden administration must use its leverage carefully. The U.S. should engage in messaging that is firm, results oriented, and clear about the specific consequences that Pakistan will face at various levels of cooperation with the Taliban.
Policy proposals to offer the Afghan peace process breathing room by negotiating a one-time extension of the U.S. withdrawal deadline admittedly rely on buy-in from Pakistan. These proposals invariably run through Pakistan, making the barriers to success high without significant compromises that Washington may be unwilling to make. These include offering relief from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), drawing red lines for India in Afghanistan, and prioritizing an end to the war over other regional objectives. Pakistan’s help in reducing Taliban violence is far from guaranteed, but the following steps offer the greatest likelihood of success.
1. Offer Support at the Financial Action Task Force If Pakistan Curbs Taliban Violence
Escaping the crosshairs of the FATF “grey list” would offer a significant political win for Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and the military, which makes it a source of leverage for Washington.
The FATF was established by the G-7 as an intergovernmental watchdog to fight money laundering and terrorist financing. In 2018, the watchdog placed Pakistan on its grey list, a move that has incurred political rather than economic costs for the country. Pakistan’s economy is undoubtedly floundering—but this is not due to the listing. Indeed, the FATF designation is not a significant source of harm to the country’s economy. Nonetheless, the 2018 listing has still done political damage by putting Islamabad’s isolation on full display, with even Saudi Arabia and China declining to advocate for the country.
The FATF designation also puts the looming threat of the “black list” on the horizon. A blacklisting would prevent Pakistan from receiving crucial assistance from institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Asian Development Bank. Simply stated, the threat of economic harm from the FATF remains very much on the table.
Washington was behind the 2018 motion to place Pakistan back on the FATF grey list after its previous removal in 2015. In addition to Pakistan’s support for the Haqqani Network, the move was motivated largely by Islamabad’s continued tolerance of anti-India terrorists, a tacit support that some experts feared could spark a nuclear conflict with India. The 2016 terrorist attack on an Indian army base in Uri and the 2017 decision by the Lahore High Court to release U.N.-designated terrorist Hafiz Saeed set the stage for the U.S. action, and the 2019 terrorist attack on a paramilitary convoy in Pulwama in Indian-administered Kashmir only solidified Washington’s view that Pakistan must be punished. Pakistan has since sentenced Saeed to 15 years in prison and taken significant steps toward FATF compliance. But when it comes to changing Pakistan’s mind about using non-state actors against India, some former U.S. officials assert that “neither the United States nor India has the tools to fundamentally alter, in the near term, what has been a long-standing attribute of Pakistan’s foreign policy.”
In other words, Pakistan might be willing to crank up the pressure on the Taliban to get back in the good graces of the FATF. The greylisting of Pakistan may have generated some actions against figures like Saeed, but the U.S. shouldn’t expect FATF leverage to buy a full-scale reversal of Pakistan’s implicit support for anti-India groups. For this reason, Washington should instead prioritize using FATF leverage to improve conditions in Afghanistan.
With this incentive, Washington may be able to convince Pakistan to exert more pressure on the Taliban. To coerce another country into altering its position, “a government must generally clearly communicate its objectives [and] impose costs that outweigh the benefits the other nation gets from standing firm[.]” Such coercion is not impossible, as was demonstrated by the U.S.-Taliban agreement forged in 2020—all of this to say, the U.S. should clearly communicate its willingness to offer conditional support for Pakistan at the FATF.
If Pakistan manages to reduce violence in Afghanistan, thereby clearing the way for the Taliban’s transition from a militant group to a political actor, then it deserves Washington’s support at the FATF. Alternatively, if Pakistan refuses to take action, then it should remain on the list. If further progress is made, then options like releasing money from the Coalition Support Fund may be considered so long as it is conditioned on specific results-oriented actions on the part of Pakistan. Pakistan will face the choice of inching closer to a pariah state or securing its position as a long-term U.S. trade and security partner.
2. Manage Pakistan’s Fears Over Indian Involvement in Afghanistan
Both Pakistan and India have viewed Afghanistan as an arena for strategic competition for decades. This rivalry partly led India to support the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and Pakistan to support the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s. It is exacerbated by Pashtun nationalism and questions over the Durand Line as the legitimate border between the two countries, issues that pinned Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto against Afghan President Mohammad Daoud Khan during the 1970s and continue to irk the relationship today.
With this in mind, the U.S. should work to mitigate Pakistan’s anxieties about Indian involvement in Afghanistan in order to secure greater cooperation on countering Taliban violence.
Sumona Guha was recently selected by President Biden to serve as senior director for South Asia at the National Security Council. In February 2020, Guha advocated for “India to play an active diplomatic role” in intra-Afghan negotiations and assist Afghanistan’s economic development. But this approach undermines the immediate goal of ending the Afghan war, because India’s importance for Afghanistan’s long-term economic sustainability is vastly outweighed by the destructive short-term paranoia India’s involvement fuels in Islamabad. The Biden administration must accept that Pakistan—not India—is the most critical regional player when it comes to ending the war in Afghanistan.
The Biden administration should decouple Afghanistan from its strategic partnership with India. This means resisting the temptation to fold Afghan policy into Washington’s broader concerns over Indo-Pacific security, such as wooing New Delhi in an effort to counter China, which has its own logic for India. New Delhi also prioritizes its own strategic autonomy from Washington, which can be seen from plans to acquire S-400 Russian air defense systems, to its participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Ending the war in Afghanistan is a more exigent priority than looking out for long-term Indian interests, even where overlapping priorities may exist. India will also have greater ability to advocate for its interests, as in January it became a nonpermanent member of the U.N. Security Council, where it will have a seat for two years. For this reason, the United States should offer to refrain from encouraging increased Indian involvement in Afghanistan, so long as Pakistan commits to clear demonstrable steps in pushing the Taliban toward a resolution.
Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad is already trying to negotiate an agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan to establish an understanding that neither country’s territory would be used to interfere with the other’s affairs. The Biden team should also provide private assurances to Pakistan that it will pressure India to refrain from using Afghanistan to engage in significant provocations inside Pakistan. But Washington must make it clear to Pakistan that a political settlement inclusive of some of India’s interests is better than a power vacuum on its western border.
Thus, in exchange for demonstrable steps toward pushing the Taliban to reduce violence, Washington should provide assurances to Pakistan that it will keep India at arm’s length from intra-Afghan negotiations and will not tolerate attempts by New Delhli to use Afghan soil to poke at Pakistan.
3. Accept the Limits of Washington’s Own Influence
In recent assessments, experts agree that Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban remains a defining variable in the outcome of intra-Afghan negotiations. Jonathan Schroden observes that Pakistan is the “most significant source of external support for the Taliban” and allows Taliban leadership to operate outside Afghanistan’s borders. Barnett Rubin asserts that Pakistan was a key factor in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table, though Islamabad “has not yet made the most important strategic decision: to eliminate the Taliban’s Pakistan-based military and terrorist logistic capacities.” He adds that Pakistan would be necessary in any regional effort to renegotiate aspects of the U.S.-Taliban agreement. Laurel Miller warns that a unilateral decision by Washington to remain in Afghanistan could lead Pakistan to increase support for the Taliban.
Any proposal that prioritizes a political settlement to end the war in Afghanistan is both time sensitive and reliant on Pakistan’s cooperation. But Pakistan’s position may prove impossible to influence, and even if Islamabad achieves a short-term reduction in violence, such a reduction would not guarantee a successful end to intra-Afghan negotiations. So while pushing Pakistan to put pressure on the Taliban is important, Washington should be careful not to wait idly by for a response from Islamabad that may never come. The Biden administration should act quickly to promote a peaceful outcome in Afghanistan while also remaining committed to bringing U.S. troops home within the agreed-upon timeframe.
4. Give Islamabad a Dose of Reality
If Pakistan’s civilian government—or more likely, its military establishment—refuses to actively pursue a reduction in violence in Afghanistan that can lead to a political settlement, it risks two potential outcomes. First, the United States may withdraw the remainder of its troops from Afghanistan, despite lack of progress toward a settlement. Pakistan’s importance will decline and little credit will be awarded to its government for bringing the Taliban to a negotiating table that achieved nothing. Islamabad will find itself alone, with a raging civil war next door. Alternatively, Washington may choose to remain in Afghanistan and treat Pakistan as an intransigent agitator or worse.
Both scenarios may prompt a coordinated campaign in Washington to label Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism—and Pakistan needs to be reminded of this possibility. Khalilzad, who has been retained as special envoy for Afghanistan, posed this idea while testifying before Congress in 2016, when he stated, “I also think we ought to consider, deliberate, debate whether Pakistan should not be put on the list, State Department list of sponsors of terrorism. Factually, it is.”
The Biden administration needs a stronger Pakistan policy if it desires to end the war in Afghanistan with the country intact. The clock is ticking. An extended policy review without action may let the opportunity to influence Islamabad’s actions slip away. The Taliban are overplaying their hand by delaying talks and escalating violence, while Pakistan is underplaying its hand by refusing to add pressure. The Biden administration should make it clear to Islamabad that feigning an inability to motivate the Taliban will fall on deaf ears, especially since much of the group’s leadership still resides in Pakistan.
Every time Pakistan faces a decision on how to proceed with Afghanistan, the Biden administration should offer Pakistan’s leadership the choice between a positive and negative outcome. Now is the time to spell things out, clearly and decisively. However, the Biden administration should not allow this effort to completely consume other regional interests such as long-term counterterrorism cooperation, nuclear security, trade and climate change. It must also acknowledge the real sacrifices that Pakistan has made over the past 20 years of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
Indeed, this will require Biden’s team to walk a tightrope, but it is the only sustainable path forward. Most importantly, Washington should not tie a U.S. withdrawal to benchmarks that hinge on the cooperation of Pakistan, which despite policymakers’ best efforts may not materialize.