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PLUGGED IN: US-Pakistan: The Taliban Peace Talks

On Plugged In, a diplomatic reset as US President Donald Trump hosts Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan at the White House.

Why Pakistan? And why now?

What are both sides hoping to accomplish? And can the US pull out of a costly war in Afghanistan without Pakistan's help?

More on Plugged In’s: US – Pakistan and the Taliban Peace Talks.

Hello and welcome to Plugged in. I'm Greta Van Susteren.

New territory for Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, as he visits Washington for his first official visit to the United States.

He was welcomed at the White House by US President Donald Trump.

It was the first-ever meeting between the Pakistan prime minister and president Trump. Their goal is for increased cooperation from both nations in the hope of stabilizing a region that's been ravaged by war.

Khan wants financial assistance Trump wants American troops out of Afghanistan.

Plugged In's Steve Redisch has our report.

Pakistan's Prime Minister, Imran Khan, is seeking to restore U.S. aid to his country, which US President Donald Trump ended last year, saying that Islamabad was not doing enough to fight extremism.

((Donald Trump, U.S. president))
“The problem was (to Khan) - this is before you - Pakistan wasn’t doing anything for us. They were really, I think, subversive. They were going against us. I tell you what: to be honest, we have a better relationship with Pakistan right now than we did when we were paying that money."

Trump blamed the Obama administration for a lack of Pakistan's cooperation.

((Donald Trump, U.S. president))
"I think Pakistan can do tremendous amount against, ah ...with respect to Afghanistan. They didn't do it and I don't blame them because they were dealing with the wrong president. Who knows? But I think Pakistan could have done – they are helping us a lot now. I think they could have helped us a lot in the past."

Trump said the U.S. aid amounting to about $1.3 billion could be restored to Pakistan “depending on what’s worked out,” he said. He wants Pakistan's cooperation on reaching a deal with the Taliban to end the war in Afghanistan and withdraw U.S. troops from there after close to 19 years.

((Donald Trump, U.S. president))
“I think Pakistan’s going to help us out to extricate ourselves. We’re like policemen. We’re not fighting a war. If we wanted to fight a war in Afghanistan and win it, I could win that war in a week. I just don't want to kill 10 million people."

Khan said there is no military solution in Afghanistan.

((Imran Khan, Pakistan Prime Minister))
"I feel, and I think we will discuss this, it's the closest we have been to a peace deal. And we hope that in the coming days, we will be able to urge the Taliban to speak to the Afghan government and come to a settlement and put it in the Constitution."

So far, Taliban leaders have refused to negotiate directly with the government in Kabul, calling it illegitimate and a "puppet" of the United States. The group has met with U.S. representatives for seven rounds of peace talks. Negotiators have claimed progress in the latest round of talks that began June 29 in Doha, Qatar, but at the same time, a Taliban attack in Afghanistan killed 25 people.

((Steve Redisch, VOA News, Washington))

GRETA: Given the long list of items up for discussion, how much room is there for meaningful negotiations between the two nations? And what does the U.S really want from its meeting with the Pakistan leader?

For more on that meeting between the two leaders we are joined by VOA White House Bureau Chief Steve Herman.

SH = Steve Herman
GVS = Greta Van Susteren

GVS: Steve, what is it that the United States is looking for in an agreement with the Taliban?
SH: Well, the main thing they want is for American soldiers in Afghanistan not to be targets anymore of the Taliban, for terrorist attacks to stop against the infrastructure of Afghanistan, and find a way that the United States can pull out most if not all of the remaining forces in the country and not have the Taliban overrun the government in Kabul.

GVS: One of the things that we understand that they want is to make sure that the Taliban assured that Afghanistan did not continue to be sort of a fertile ground for launching attacks against other parts of the world, against the United States, against Americans. Was that, is there any movement on that?

SH: Well, there are a lot of very encouraging words from Imran Khan, who many in this town see as a refreshing face coming from Islamabad as the relatively new prime minister of that country. But, there's also a lot of skepticism that we've heard, very encouraging words and promises from the Pakistanis for many many years and when push comes to shove nothing really changes.

GVS: But Imran Khan's only been Prime Minister for about a year. The Taliban and the agreement we're talking about is in Afghanistan. Taliban is also in Pakistan where Imran Khan is the prime minister. What, if anything, can Imran Khan do?

SH: Yes, he, we have to remember, is a civilian leader of the government. The military apparatus, which operates with some degree of autonomy in Pakistan is very powerful, as is the intelligence agency, the ISI. And then you have the border regions in Pakistan, which are basically lawless and Imran Khan, talking about that here in Washington, has said he's tried to repeatedly warn people that for the Pakistani army to go in there and try to assert control would only be a disaster.

GVS: But we're in a minute going to go to Pakistan find out the reaction of this statement by the President. But the President did say something in the Oval Office that has been getting, making headlines is that he could win the war in a week but he didn't want to kill 10 million people. What's the reaction at the White House to that statement?

SH: Well, it's another one of the statements that the President made that people here wish he did not make. It certainly doesn't improve the image of the United States with some of the elements in Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai, the former president of Afghanistan, has been speaking to VOA's Afghan service about it, and basically saying it was a terrible comment, and the US should have never been in his country in the first place and should get out as quickly as possible.

GVS: Over the last approximately 19 years of this war Steve there's been talk about when you talk about the Taliban, the treatment they have of women, and whether or not that would ever be part of any negotiations, and the women in the Taliban are treated very harshly by the Taliban. Is there any discussion, does the topic of women seem to bubble up to the top discussion these days with this negotiation?

SH: I don't think it's bubbling up to the top. It is definitely a concern, and I've spent some time in Afghanistan, traveled around the country, and the consensus is, is that any territory that is going to be under the control of the Taliban is going to have that ultra conservative attitude towards women in that country.

GVS: Well the conversation that the President had openly in front of the press with Imran Khan was vastly different than his tweet of about 18 months ago, in which he said they've given us nothing but lies and deceit. He sort of echoed that again in the speaking with Imran Khan in the Oval Office, but he said that's changed. How's that changed?

SH: Well I think because Imran Khan used the force of his personality, stressed that he was someone who also used his celebrity and wasn't part of the conventional political system in Pakistan, and that helped convince Trump to meet with him, and there seemed to be pretty decent chemistry between these two leaders when they met. Of course, Trump likes to think that he can solve these problems in one on one meetings with other leaders and there are others around him who are trying to caution the President that we really need to see some concrete moves by Imran Khan in Pakistan before rewarding the Pakistanis. But of course the president gave an instant reward to Imran Khan in the Oval Office with his statement that Prime Minister Modi in India had asked him to mediate on the Kashmiri territorial issue between Pakistan and India. Pakistan's been in favor of a third party involvement in that from the United States, where India has been vehemently opposed to that. So that was a major victory handed to Imran Khan right there in the Oval Office.

GVS: Steve, thank you. Steve Herman, our VOA White House Bureau Chief.

GRETA: The relationship between Pakistan and the United States is long and rocky. Friendly as well as frosty depending on the situation. Complicating things even more is the US's nearly 20-year war on terror.

For more on this complex relationship we are joined via Skype by Ayesha Tanzeem VOA's Bureau chief in Islamabad.

AT = Ayesha Tanzeem
GVS = Greta Van Susteren

GVS: Welcome back to the show, Ayesha! And tell me, what is it that Prime Minister Imran Khan was looking for by coming to the United States to the Oval Office to meet with President Trump?

AT: Well, first of all, he was looking to reset the relationship with the United States, which has been really rocky since 2011. But particularly rocky since President Trump announced to South Asia policy almost two years ago. So, for the last almost five years, there's been no meeting between the principles of the top leadership of the two countries. So, that was a number one, but also Pakistan's doing really badly, economically. So it's just negotiated a $6 billion, three year loan with the IMF, the International Monetary Fund, but that loan is not going to come all in one go. That loan’s going to come and crunches and with every crunch IMF is going to ask the Pakistan to fulfill what many are calling very, very, very strict requirements. So, that loan was only possible because Pakistan helped the US with the Taliban. Because previously, top-level U.S. officials said that United States taxpayer money could not be used to you know, Pakistan has a lot of debt from China. And they said, US taxpayer money could not be used to repay Chinese debt. That was an indication that Pakistan would have a problem getting IMF loan where us is one of the biggest stakeholders. The second thing is in October, there's going to be a meeting, of an international money laundering and counterterrorism fund, a terrorism funding watchdog – the Financial Action Task Force. Pakistan is right now in the grey list of FATF, which creates financial difficulty in international transactions. Pakistan really wants to get out of that grey list. And U.S. can really help Pakistan in that. So, those are the two big gifts that Pakistan needed.

GVS: One of the things – one of the conversations, one of the headlines – I don't want to overemphasize this by Steve asking Herman about it, is the President's rather muscular language, which were quite accustomed to here in the United States, he said that in one week, he could take care of Afghanistan, but 10 million people be killed him. And we in the United States have, you know, heard his, his, you know, muscular language like that before, but I'm curious how has that been received, or as the Afghan government responding to that and is Pakistani government responding to that?

AT: The Pakistani government hasn't responded. The Pakistani government's trying to put a really positive spin on this interaction and doesn't want to say anything negative. But the Afghan government has responded strongly. They put out a press statement. They said that Afghanistan is an ancient country and is dignified on the world stage. And they've asked a clarification through diplomatic channels of what the President actually means. Not only that, the Afghan Taliban that the US is negotiating with right now to end the war in Afghanistan, they also put out a statement in Pashto. And they said that the US needs to remember the history. Afghanistan’s the graveyard of the empire and shouldn't be impractical and analyzing the situation there. So very strong reaction from Afghanistan. Pakistan, is trying to put a very positive spin on this whole interaction in this meeting. So I don't, I don't expect anything coming out on Pakistan on that issue.

GVS: Ayesha, we've talked so much about the Taliban, Afghanistan, but there's Taliban, Taliban in Pakistan. Is there a way to describe how widespread that is and whether Prime Minister Khan can do anything about that in his negotiations.

AT: And that's exactly, Greta, you've hit the nail on the head. Pakistan says we have some influence with Taliban, but our influence is, you know, depreciating. And it's not as much as people expect, and we can do some things. But we can't do everything. The US obviously expects Pakistan to be able to do a lot more and expects that Pakistan has a lot more influence. We can see it in the language that the US has used in background briefings and even in the readout after the meeting. We can see it in the priorities set – the agenda priorities, which said that it had, the US had two agenda items that grabbed the top. Number one to convince the Taliban to have a ceasefire and to talk love gun government. And number two, to deal with the other terrorist groups that the US says are operating in Pakistan, not just Afghan centric terrorist groups, but India centric terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. And, and the fact that in the White House there was a bigger luncheon with delegations from both sides, but there was a smaller meeting with the very few people from both sides, and that included Pakistan's Prime Minister, army chief and DGISI, the head of intelligence. That showed the US priority that it really had security on its mind. While Pakistan wanted a broader talk on it, on trade and on include increasing investment, U.S. really wanted to hone in – focus on security, focus on Afghanistan. And the fact that they have the smaller huddle with just the President Prime Minister and the intelligence and military showed that the US understands that without the military's help they cannot move forward on these security and, you know, terrorism and Taliban related issues.

GVS: Ayesha, thank you. Ayesha Tanzeem, VOA Bureau Chief in Islamabad.

GRETA: In Doha, the capital of Qatar, negotiations between Afghan and Taliban officials on a so-called “Roadmap for Peace” appear to be making progress. But is it enough to end 18 years of war?

More on that from Plugged In's Mil Arcega.

At a two-day meeting of more than 50 Afghan politicians, Taliban officials and civil activists… one participant told VOA that traditionally ultra-conservative Taliban attitudes may be changing.

((Asila Wardak, Afghan Peace Council))
"I feel their attitude has changed and they are ready to talk to women. Last night at dinner was the first time I met with Taliban representatives and some of their envoys came to talk to us."

But senior Taliban representative Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef tells VOA that Taliban leadership will not accept decisions imposed on the group regardless of political or military pressure.

((Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef))
"The world community, including the government, including their alliance - they used all their best in the pressure in Afghanistan, but they are defended. Now it is time to respect each other and to respect the reality and to respect the rights of each other and then we should find our way."

The Taliban has in the past resisted negotiating with the Afghan government calling it a puppet of the United States. They insist that any government delegates attending intra-Afghan talks are only there in a private capacity.

But Washington has made it clear that the Taliban must deal with the government in Kabul before a final peace deal can be approved.

((Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation))
"We have made progress, but no final agreement yet."

Helping to facilitate a peace deal are the governments of Qatar and Germany.

((Markus Potzel, Germany's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan))
"The efforts made by many over the past few years and months, especially the ongoing talks between the United States and the Taliban, have opened up an historic opportunity. But as important as those talks are, they cannot be enough. Dialogue has to turn into a meaningful negotiating process."

But even as rival groups discuss ways to end the 18-year-war, there is a renewed sense of urgency for lasting peace – following a Taliban attack July 7th in the Afghan city of Ghazni, which killed 14 people and wounded more than 180…a third of them children.

((Mil Arcega VOA News, Washington))

GRETA: Joining us to shed more light on the delicate peace negotiations between the Taliban and Afghanistan is Michael Kugelman. He is the Asia Program Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center. Mr. Kugelman is a foreign policy expert on Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan.

MK = Michael Kugelman
GVS = Greta Van Susteren

GVS: Thank you for joining us, sir.

MK: Thank you.

GVS: Is there - looking to sort of big picture, is there a way to compare and contrast the Trump administration approach to Afghanistan and the Taliban and the previous administration, President Obama?

MK: Well, for Trump, the big thing is, is peace talks, negotiations. Trump wants to end this war. Obama wanted to end the war as well, but Trump wants to end it even more. So that's what he's really double down on this objective of getting a real peace process going. And he's had Zalmay Khalilzad, that is essentially his man to try to do everything possible to get the deal that will allow Trump to pull troops out of Afghanistan. And I would argue that getting a deal in Afghanistan is probably Trump's core goal in South Asia right now.

GVS: But it seems to me that one of the difficulties of – you know, if I were sitting in the Oval Office, or even our Prime Minister of Pakistan, that we have set in trying to negotiate a settlement between the Taliban, you have you have to have a centralized government. I mean, there's no centralized government to the Taliban. So Who do you talk to? That's number one. That's the number one problem. The other number two problem is that the agreement needs to be made with the Afghan government, and they send the Taliban as a whole tent sees the Afghan government is simply a puppet of the United States. So How do you go about trying to resolve this?

MK: Well, it's a big mess, because you're right, there's a lot of factionalization within the Taliban. And it's really the moderate elements of the Taliban, those that are based in Doha that are involved in the negotiations. Now, theoretically, the top leadership of the Taliban has signed off on this, and they send some of their top people to be involved in negotiations. But to be sure, if you were to get a peace deal, and that's a big if, there's no reason to believe that the entire Taliban organization would abide by a peace agreement. You could have still have factions that will continue to fight. Even if there's a peace deal.

GVS: How big is the Taliban? We say the Taliban all the time. We mean, how big is it in Afghanistan? How much is it bleeding into Pakistan? If an agreement is resolved in Afghanistan, how much then goes back over the border into Pakistan?

MK: Yeah, well, I mean, essentially, the top leadership of the Taliban is based in Pakistan, but the organization is quite large. And I think the US government tends to understate the numbers. I mean, you hear 20,000 30,000, but I think it's actually more like 40 - 50,000 Taliban fighters, which, of course, doesn't may not sound like a huge number, but it's it's it's not small.

GVS: Is it significant that in that Prime Minister concave the United States, is that a significant step forward?

MK: Yeah, I mean. I think that the reason, the main reason he was invited to the White House was Trump's way of recognizing what he believes to be Pakistan's assistance to this point, in trying to get a peace process started with the Taliban. The US government does believe that Pakistan to this point has been helpful, particularly by actually physically getting Taliban representatives to the table to start these talks.

GVS: Let me go surf off on a tangent, Dr. Afridi, who is believed by American Americans to have helped identify and locate Osama bin Laden's that we so the United States would go in and get him. He was picked up subsequently, after helping the United States has been held in prison in Pakistan. Many Americans believe that, he you know, that he should be released and maybe will permit to come to the United States. Is Dr. Afridi part of the discussion now?

MK: I mean, I'm sure that Trump brought Afridi up in his discussions with Imran Khan. I don't think it was a big part of the conversation. But Trump has mentioned Afridi before and what's important is those close to Trump those that have his ear, such as, for example, Senator Lindsey Graham, bring up the Afridi issue a lot. I don't think Pakistan is in any hurry to, to release them. They view them as a spy, to be sure. But for Trump, he would derive major political benefits of getting a free release because he could essentially say to his political base, ‘well, look, I freed the guy that helped us track down Osama bin Laden’. I just don't think Pakistan is ready to release this person.

GVS: When I was in Pakistan a number of years ago with Secretary State Hillary Clinton and she was announcing $7.5 billion in Kerry-Luger bill of economic aid to Pakistan. And it was when she arrived in Pakistan it was thought that it'd be received well. But I remember people saying to me is that they were the Pakistanis were upset because United States was going to give this aid but then want to know, you know, where it was what has been used for. And they saw that as strings attached. And they were sort, of least once I spoke to, resentful towards Americans and their largest giving them money. What's the Pakistani sort of man on the street view of the United States?

MK: Yeah, I mean, Pakistan, Pakistan, there's a lot of anti-American sentiment in Pakistan. And I would argue that it's against US policy, not Americans, per se. But yeah, even the fact that the US tripled its civilian assistance to Pakistan, in the Obama period. That didn't go over well among many Pakistanis. They thought it was essentially a big bribe, to get to buy off Pakistan to get Pakistan to do the things that the US wanted it to do, such as go after terrorists more robustly, help the United States, in Afghanistan and so on. There actually were no strings attached to that civil and assistance. It's actually somewhat of a misconception that Pakistan sort of put out that narrative. There were no strings attached, that the security assistance had strings attached but the civilian aid was, was conditions free.

GVS: In looking at what the United States and looking at the negotiations with the Taliban, one of the things that I don't hear, but I hear about, you know, the ceasefire, they work with the – that the Taliban were talked to the Afghan government. One of the things that I don't hear about now is the atrocious treatment of women by the Taliban. Is that just not part of the discussion now, because it used to be a part of the discussion.

MK: It's a terrible shame, because we all know that Taliban’s record when it comes to women. But the Taliban claims that it's different now. That it sort of projects itself as ‘the Taliban 2.0’, treats women better and all that. But the areas of Afghanistan now and they're quite a few that are under Taliban control, from what we hear of those and managed to get into see how things are going, treatment of women doesn't sound to be any better than it was in the 1990s when the Taliban ran the country.

GVS: Michael, thank you very much. Michael Kugelman who's Asia program Deputy Director at the Wilson Center.

GRETA: It has been almost 20 years since the US began the 'War on Terror'. And the Taliban and Afghanistan have been a major focus of that war effort.

The War in Afghanistan is now the longest running US military endeavor.

Sometimes called The “The Forever War”, it has lasted more than 18 years. It began one month after the al-Qaida attacks on 9/11 on October 7, 2001. A U.S. led coalition of 136 countries began bombing the Taliban regime In Afghanistan, which had supported the terror group.

Three US presidents – George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump have overseen the war.

US Troop levels in Afghanistan have fluctuated over the years, from 30 thousand before 2009, to over 100 thousand in 2011.

The human cost of War has been high: tens of thousands of Afghan civilians have died and more than 2,400 U.S. troops have been killed in combat.

According to the Pentagon, it has also had a large price tag. In 2018 – the war cost roughly $45 billion. But that’s down from an average of about $100 billion from 2010 to 2012.

Since 2018, the United States has been engaged in direct talks with the Taliban, seeking to negotiate a settlement that will both end the war and guarantee that Afghanistan, once again, does not become a staging ground for future terror attacks.

Over the weekend, the Taliban claimed responsibility for two deadly attacks that killed at least nine and injured at least 30 others.

The attacks occurred at a security checkpoint and a hospital in northwestern Pakistan. These attacks underscore concerns about just how the Taliban will be contained if and when the U.S pulls out of Afghanistan.
Joining me to discuss the ongoing threat of terrorism in the region is Managing Editor for VOA's Extremism Watch Desk, Hasib Alikozai.

HA = Hasib Alikozai
GVS = Greta Van Susteren

GVS: Nice to see you.

HA: Nice to see you Greta.

GVS: Assume that that an agreement is worked out with the Taliban and assume that the United States, gets out of the region and troops come home. What happens next? Is there a vacuum there, will there be other terrorist groups?

HA: Right now in the region of Afghanistan and Pakistan there are active 20 terror groups, you know, including the Afghan Taliban, including the Pakistani Taliban, Islamic State, al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and a bunch of others. So, recently, you know, the nominee for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff also pointed this out, that there will always be a residual US presence, military presence for counter-terrorism missions. So to fully pull the US troops out there will certainly be a vacuum and, and there's always the issue of whether we can trust the Taliban or not, and whether they will provide a fertile ground for terror groups in the region. So, the US would most likely keep some sort of presence in the country, even if a deal is reached between the Afghan government, the US and the Taliban.

GVS: When you say there are 20 groups, a group could be three people, could be a lot more people. I mean is there some sort of a more of a numerical description we know what you know how big are these groups, I assume they're varied, but…

HA: These groups are US designated terror groups, and you're talking about thousands of fighters, tens of thousands of fighters. If we're talking about, for instance Lashkar-e-Taiba, it has its own forces Jaish-e-Mohammed, the Islamic State or Khorasan branch, that covers Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Central Asia region. You have all kind operatives in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. So you're talking about tens of thousands of fighters.

GVS: The United States has never taken any land and war, and the United States wants to get out of the area and United States wants people to stop killing each other, they want to stop the terrorism, what is it that these, these 20 groups want?

HA: They are, basically, some of them are insurgent groups, but most of them are terror groups and you know.

GVS: What do they want?

HA: They just want to drag US and the Western powers into long wars and basically drain them of their resources, that's basically the, they're taking the insurgency concept and applying it at the world stage. What they want to do is they initially want to start in rural areas, which is the third world part of the country, or the global south and, and they are carrying out terror attacks there and also against Western targets in an effort and hoping that the US or the West will go after them. And once they do that, then it will be a typical counterinsurgency, where the rebel groups the militant groups, the terror groups will now use as much resources as the West would use. And that's basically their end goal.

GVS: OK, less than a minute left. Is Pakistan getting ahead of the game on fighting terrorism within its border? Is Taliban inside its borders, as well as the other terrorist groups?

HA: There's always that skepticism that Pakistan has been selective in cracking down on militants going after militant groups that pose a security threat to their country and overlooking militant groups that pose a threat to the security of Afghanistan, US forces inside Pakistan and in India, but it has yet to be seen whether Pakistan will actually deliver on its promises. One thing that's important to be pointed about Pakistan - is Pakistan is counting… has a very good knowledge of how the US government works, and basically Taliban and Pakistan are both, might be counting on the fact that the US would never deploy back to a region, it was to play as deployed troops in a similar fashion, at least, and they are basically waiting out the US to see, if the US will pull out. And then, Pakistan, would seek a client state.

GVS: Hasib Alikoza, thank you very much, with VOA’s Extremism Watch Desk.

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