Crossroads: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States

Categories: Dialogue Snapshots,Regional Policy Dialogues

From 2017 to 2019, the Hollings Center for International Dialogue hosted the Afghanistan-Pakistan Partnership Summit, a program sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to foster business, education, and civil society connections between the two countries. Following the Doha Agreement in February 2020 and the announcement of the withdrawal of U.S. forces by mid-2021, the Center decided to continue the partnership program and discuss future policy considerations. To determine possible outcomes and the future role of the United States in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations, the Center invited American voices and opinions to join alumni of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Partnership Summit for an online dialogue program.

The dialogue was conducted over three virtual sessions during summer 2021. The first session on June 30 looked at the future of U.S.-Pakistan relations. The second session, held on July 14, evaluated the future of U.S.-Afghanistan relations. The final session, taking place on August 11, looked at the future American role in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations.

The dialogue occurred as significant events took place in Afghanistan. The changing realities for Afghans, including some of the participants, created a dialogue far different from what was initially envisioned. When the dialogue began, the Taliban offensive that began in May was largely concentrated to rural areas. Most NATO forces had already departed the country, leading to speculation on Afghanistan’s long-term security. By the second meeting, more than 60 additional districts had fallen to the Taliban and several provincial capitals were actively threatened. By the final meeting in August, nine provincial capitals had fallen to the Taliban. Ghazni, Herat, and Kandahar would fall the following day. Mere days later, Taliban forces would enter Kabul, effectively taking over the country.

This dialogue snapshot report is a contemporaneous account of the shifting viewpoints and attitudes expressed by the participants as events unfolded during summer 2021. Many of the challenges and conditions discussed during the meeting remain relevant, if not more urgent than before. Although some policy suggestions may change, some remain pertinent even today.

  • Participants agreed on the need for a reset in bilateral and trilateral relations. However, it became clear that the priorities of each state were too divergent and misaligned to seriously consider developing new strategic relationships. A general climate of mistrust and skepticism further prohibited such strategic discussions.
  • As the dialogue progressed and the security situation in Afghanistan worsened, the focus shifted from discussions about the future to debates about each country’s culpability in the current crisis. This further signaled a state of distrust and made any long-term strategic discussions infeasible.
  • Participants consistently expressed uncertainty, the need for introspection, and concerns about losing decades of progress throughout the dialogue.
  • Issues of mutual interest did exist between the three countries, including addressing climate change, economic investment, managing the pandemic, and assisting refugees. These issues could still be building blocks for future bilateral discussions.
  • Participants concurred that regardless of security developments, it would be critical for Afghan, American, and Pakistani colleagues to continue as much engagement as possible.
  • Following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, future prospects are unclear. It is uncertain whether the United States will engage with the Taliban-controlled Afghan government following the conclusion of the American evacuation. Likewise, authorities in Pakistan have sent mixed messages about their future relationship with Afghanistan. It will likely be quite some time before a new paradigm is set.
Author: Michael Carroll