Collapse of US-Taleban talks an awkward blow for Pakistan

ISLAMABAD: The collapse of US-Taleban talks is an untimely setback for Pakistan, which had hoped its efforts to bring the militants to the table would be rewarded with an economic boost and American support in its dispute with India over Kashmir. Prime Minister Imran Khan has promised to issue a rallying cry at the United Nations General Assembly in New York next week over India’s moves in the disputed Himalayan region, which he has described as ethnic cleansing, and warned of “impending genocide”.

But Pakistan, long condemned for its support for militant groups, needs political capital if it is to sway a global community that has been historically reluctant to challenge New Delhi over Kashmir. Helping the United States with its fervent wish to leave Afghanistan after nearly 18 years of war was widely seen as an opportunity to get back into Washington’s good books after years of being accused of duplicity.
For a brief moment in July, it appeared to be working. President Donald Trump delighted Khan in Washington by declaring his willingness to mediate on Kashmir, over which India and Pakistan have fought two wars and countless skirmishes since the end of British colonial rule in 1947. New Delhi repeated its position that Kashmir is a purely bilateral issue with Islamabad and dismissed the possibility of foreign mediation, but still, Pakistan’s star once again appeared on the rise in Washington. The relief was short-lived.

Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi threw a security blanket over the Indian-administered part of Kashmir and revoked the region’s autonomy, igniting outrage in Pakistan. And as Islamabad scrambled to win international support for its position on Kashmir, in a separate twist, Trump abruptly called off talks with the Taleban, blowing up nearly a year of painstaking efforts to secure a deal that would have seen the beginning of US troop withdrawal.

Pakistan has for years called for a political solution in Afghanistan, and had used its influence over the Taleban to help facilitate talks with the United States, hoping a successful outcome would help generate diplomatic capital – especially for Kashmir. “Until Pakistan gets Afghanistan settled, they are not going to find it easy to respond to India’s action in Kashmir so they are certainly in a bit of a bind,” Kashmir militancy expert Myra MacDonald told AFP.

Khan told reporters last week that he will meet with the US President yesterday to urge a resumption of talks with the Taleban. Khan will take zero comfort from Trump’s beaming participation Sunday in a massive “Howdy Modi” rally in Texas on Sunday, during which the Indian leader offered a staunch and unchallenged defense of his move in Kashmir and took several, thinly-veiled swipes at Pakistan as a sponsor of terrorism. Trump told the 50,000 crowd of mostly Indian-Americans that Modi was doing an “exceptional job”.

Tough times
The talks collapse comes at an especially delicate time in Pakistan, where frustrations are mounting just a year into Khan’s rule with the economy under immense stress, and officials are struggling to raise revenues while slashing spending under an International Monetary Fund bailout agreement. They are also bracing for a decision next month by the Financial Action Task Force, an anti-money-laundering monitor based in Paris that has threatened to blacklist Pakistan for failing to combat terror financing.

“Pakistan remains in dire financial straits and could really use some goodwill from the US and its allies,” Graeme Smith, a consultant with International Crisis Group said. The end of the Taleban talks, and the sudden uncertainty about how Islamabad is viewed by the mercurial Trump administration, suggest American help in easing Pakistan’s financial pain may be difficult to come by. “Pakistan has invested a lot in these talks,” said analyst Zahid Hussain. “This abrupt ending… is a setback.”

‘Considerable influence’

Khan now faces the unsavoury task of weathering increased pressure from a White House more interested in Afghanistan than Kashmir. Kabul and Washington have long accused Pakistan of sheltering and supporting the Taleban, an allegation it denies. Security expert Rahimullah Yusufzai said that with talks off, Washington is likely to increase pressure on Islamabad once against to clamp down on the Taleban.

The militant group has vowed more violence but left the door open for talks, while the US has insisted they meet certain conditions first. “It will be a ‘do more’ sort of situation” for Pakistan, Yusufzai explained. But Pakistani military expert Ayesha Siddiqa argued that Islamabad still has a card to play. “They have considerable influence to talk to the Taleban if not to make them act totally according to Islamabad’s wishes,” she said. “They can try to convince them.”_ AFP

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