THE importance — or rather, the lack thereof — of the visit of US Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Dan Feldman to Islamabad this week can be gauged from the press note his office put out on Oct 27.
Barely three perfunctory lines are dedicated to the Pakistan visit; while five lines are reserved for the next leg of the trip — China — with words like ‘senior’, ‘key’ and ‘important’ sprinkled liberally across the China-related part of the statement. With that hardly overwhelming pre-trip billing, the visit itself passed off in a welter of platitudes.
The US is committed to Pakistan; but assistance is going to be dramatically scaled back. The US wants more trade with Pakistan; but there is no mention of how trade concessions will be enacted.
The US is not abandoning Afghanistan; but US language on Afghanistan seems increasingly noncommittal. And the US wants the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan to move forward; but is not really willing to do anything about it.
Perhaps the greatest worry about the increasing distance the US seems to be putting between itself and this region is what will happen on the Taliban front.
Unable — at times unwilling — to draw the Afghan Taliban into talks over the years, the US seems content to ignore the problem and virtually treats it as one that the Afghan government has to solve on its own, or perhaps with some Pakistani input.
The Taliban, meanwhile, appear to view the massive drawdown of foreign troops as a victory for themselves as they make gains in the more contested regions, with foreign troops withdrawing and the Afghan National Security Forces unwilling or unable to exert control over swathes of Afghanistan’s territory.
How does it help a reconciliation process if one side believes, and has reason to, that it can simply take by force what it cannot secure at the negotiating table? Pushing reconciliation further down the list of priorities — as appears to have happened given the fraught Afghan presidential transition and the diversion of the US foreign policy establishment’s attention to other areas — only sets up a more complicated problem for the region: dealing with the Taliban just as the latter believe they have defeated not one, but two superpowers in three decades.
The right course of action, never the easiest, remains well known — Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US need to work together to find a peaceful settlement with the Afghan Taliban.