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

Amid a Spike in Violence, Have Afghan Peace Talks Lost Momentum?

Amid a Spike in Violence, Have Afghan Peace Talks Lost Momentum?

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

By: Johnny Walsh

After rapid progress in early 2019, the Afghan peace process has seemingly slowed. The U.S. chief negotiator, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, said in May that his negotiations with the Taliban were making slow but steady progress, but there has been little headway in starting talks among the various Afghan parties. Meanwhile, violence has ratcheted up, as typically occurs in the spring and summer in Afghanistan. The country’s overdue presidential polls are scheduled for late September, further complicating efforts to achieve peace. Can talks succeed amid the violence and political discord? Will the elections drain momentum from the peace process? USIP’s Johnny Walsh looks at the Afghan peace process ahead of the next round of talks in late June.

Peace Processes

Women in Conflict: Advancing Women’s Role in Peace and Security

Women in Conflict: Advancing Women’s Role in Peace and Security

Thursday, June 13, 2019

By: Palwasha L. Kakar

Palwasha Kakar, senior program officer for religion and inclusive societies, testified on June 13 at the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues' hearing on "Women in Conflict: Advancing Women's Role in Peace and Security.” Her expert testimony as prepared is presented below.

Gender; Peace Processes

Perspectives on Peace from Taliban Areas of Afghanistan

Perspectives on Peace from Taliban Areas of Afghanistan

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

By: Ashley Jackson

Notably absent from the debate around peace in Afghanistan are the voices of those living in parts of the country that have borne the brunt of the fighting since 2001—particularly those living in areas under Taliban control or influence. This report provides insight into how Afghan men and women in Taliban-influenced areas view the prospects for peace, what requirements would have to be met for local Taliban fighters to lay down their arms, and how views on a political settlement and a future government differ between Taliban fighters and civilians.

Reconciliation

Belquis Ahmadi on the Afghan Peace Process

Belquis Ahmadi on the Afghan Peace Process

Thursday, May 16, 2019

By: Belquis Ahmadi

Reflecting on recent conversations in Doha and Kabul, USIP’s Belquis Ahmadi says that Afghans told her they want peace, but are not willing to sacrifice the hard-won gains of the last 18 years to get there. As U.S.-Taliban talks move forward, the extent of the Taliban’s evolution on issues like women’s rights remains in question. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” says Ahmadi.

Gender; Peace Processes

View All Publications