Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in brief stops in Kabul and Islamabad during a trip through the Middle East and Asia, sought to further emphasize the administration’s commitment to the war in Afghanistan and to press Pakistan for its support to the fight, says Jay Wise, a Jennings Randolph Senior Fellow on Asia at USIP. Wise analyzes the visits this week and the prospects for the broader U.S. strategy for South Asia.

Secretary Tillerson Meets With Afghan President Ghani
Secretary Tillerson Meets With Afghan President Ghani. Photo Courtesy of Flickr/U.S. Department of State

What was Tillerson trying to accomplish in Kabul and Islamabad?

In Kabul, Tillerson was seeking to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the war in Afghanistan, especially in light of recent Taliban attacks throughout Afghanistan. In Islamabad, Tillerson sought to capitalize on the positive action represented by the safe return of Caitlin Coleman, her husband and their children. Tillerson was following up on talks started by a senior U.S. government delegation that traveled to Pakistan two weeks ago. The idea is to detail the U.S. strategy for South Asia and especially the war in Afghanistan, what the U.S. is asking of Pakistan in that regard and how Pakistan might benefit.  

What does the U.S. want from Pakistan, and vice versa?

As Tillerson suggested in his remarks Monday after the Afghanistan stop, the string of attacks against Afghan security units since mid-October heightens U.S. concerns that Taliban and Haqqani Network commanders are orchestrating violence across the border from havens inside Pakistan.  Although positive statements are likely from both sides after the meeting, I expect that Tillerson re-emphasized that the U.S. sees this as a fundamental problem, not just an irritant in the relationship. He likely would have outlined steps the U.S. would like Pakistan to take against sanctuaries and the leaders who use them.

Pakistani leaders will seek to follow up on President Trump’s allusion to an eventual political settlement of the war. Tillerson himself underscored that in an aside to the Taliban during his speech on the U.S.-India relationship last week: “We’ll be here as long as it takes for you to change your mind and decide you want to engage with the Afghan Government in a reconciliation process and develop a form of government that does suit the needs of the culture of Afghanistan.” 

Is Kabul ready for such a reconciliation process, and how would Pakistan—and other countries—be involved?

These issues won’t be settled in a single visit. But it will be hard for the U.S. and Pakistan to sustain a productive bilateral relationship without moving closer to a mutual understanding on them. Another question that Pakistani leaders will be asking, especially in light of Trump’s call for more Indian economic involvement in Afghanistan, is what would be the size, scope and type of Indian involvement in any future Afghanistan? Tillerson’s next stop after Islamabad was New Delhi.

What about the rest of the broad range of issues in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship?

Tillerson likely would have discussed nuclear and nonproliferation issues, border tension between India and Pakistan and the trajectory of Lashkar-e-Taiba and other terrorist groups operating from Pakistani soil.

It’s also striking that the State Department’s announcement of the trip highlighted the potential for expanding economic ties between the U.S. and Pakistan. Greater economic growth can help secure some of the domestic gains Pakistan has made in the past five years—and build constituencies for more reform and more regional and international economic integration.

Related Publications

Rival Afghan Leaders Agree to Share Power—Now Comes the Hard Part

Rival Afghan Leaders Agree to Share Power—Now Comes the Hard Part

Thursday, May 21, 2020

By: Scott Worden; Johnny Walsh

Last weekend, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and rival Abdullah Abdullah signed a power-sharing deal to end a months-long dispute over the 2019 presidential election. The deal comes amid a spate of high-profile violence, including a recent attack on a Kabul maternity ward by suspected ISIS perpetrators. Meanwhile, the Afghan peace process has stalled since the U.S.-Taliban deal signed at the end of February. The power-sharing agreement could address one of the key challenges to getting that process back on track. USIP’s Scott Worden and Johnny Walsh look at what the agreement entails and what it means for the peace process.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Democracy & Governance; Peace Processes

Scott Worden on the Afghan Power-Sharing Deal

Scott Worden on the Afghan Power-Sharing Deal

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

By: Scott Worden

A political deal to resolve the disputed 2019 presidential election was finally reached over the weekend. USIP’s Scott Worden says the agreement “is quite significant” because it will give the Afghan side “more political coherence to negotiate with the Taliban and, if implemented, it will show the Taliban they can’t divide Afghans.”

Type: Podcast

Democracy & Governance

Afghan Grassroots Activists Could Help Build a Lasting Peace

Afghan Grassroots Activists Could Help Build a Lasting Peace

Thursday, May 7, 2020

By: Ehsan Zia; Tabatha Thompson

Since the U.S.-Taliban deal was inked at the end of February, progress in the Afghan peace process has stalled due to disagreements over prisoner releases and complicated by an ongoing political dispute over last year’s presidential election. And now Afghanistan must confront a COVID-19 outbreak. But, the logjammed top-down peace process is only one piece of the puzzle to ending the country’s long-running conflict: there’s also the grassroots.

Type: Blog

Nonviolent Action; Peace Processes

Service Delivery in Taliban-Influenced Areas of Afghanistan

Service Delivery in Taliban-Influenced Areas of Afghanistan

Thursday, April 30, 2020

In 2018 and 2019, USIP partnered with the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), a Kabul-based research and policy organization, in an effort to understand how the Taliban provide education, health, and other services to people who live in areas where they are the dominant power. Based on a series of studies conducted by AAN in five districts across the country, the report also examines the Taliban's motivations as a governing entity and their implications for a potential peace settlement.

Type: Special Report

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

View All Publications