Washington — President Donald Trump on Monday hailed Pakistan for its help in advancing peace talks in Afghanistan, in a marked shift in tone as the US seeks an accord with the Taliban to end more than 18 years of war.
Speaking from the Oval Office alongside Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, Trump also repeatedly warned he could end the war in a matter of days in such a way that “Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the Earth”, but preferred dialogue.
“We’ve made a lot of progress over the last couple of weeks, and Pakistan has helped us with that progress,” said Trump.
“A lot of things are happening for the US, and I think a lot of great things are going to be happening for Pakistan under your leadership,” he added as he turned to face his counterpart, in an encounter filled with smiles and mutual praise.
The warm words signalled a reversal for the Republican president, who has in the past accused Pakistan of lying and being duplicitous, heightening tensions in a relationship that was already fractured before he came to office.
Trump took personal credit for the apparent change in Pakistani cooperation, telling reporters: “I don’t think Pakistan respected the US, I don’t think Pakistan respected its presidents.”
Khan, for his part, said: “I am one of those who always believed there was no military solution.… I have to compliment President Trump, because he has now forced people to end the war.”
In an exchange with a reporter, Trump also offered to mediate the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan, in what would amount to a reversal of decades-long US policy that the issue must be resolved between the two countries.
He invoked a request to do so by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — prompting a denial from India’s foreign ministry, which said the fate of the territory remained a bilateral matter.
“No such request has been made by prime minister to the US president,” tweeted Raveesh Kumar, the official spokesman for the Indian foreign ministry.
The US is pressing for a political agreement with the Taliban before presidential voting in Afghanistan in late September. This would clear the way for most US troops to withdraw from Afghanistan and bring an end to America’s longest war.
But Trump warned: “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.… Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the Earth.”
Washington and Kabul accuse Pakistan of supporting armed extremist groups such as the Haqqani network, which is an ally of the Taliban, by giving it refuge in Pakistani regions along the border with Afghanistan.
Pakistan denies providing such support and argues that it has sustained huge losses in terms of lives and money as it fights extremism.
Days before Khan’s visit, Pakistani authorities detained Hafiz Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba and the alleged mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, in a move hailed by Trump as a result of the pressure applied by his administration.
Shamila Chaudhry, a senior fellow at the New America think tank and a former White House official, said Khan’s visit amounted to “a reward for good behaviour for following through on the Taliban talks”.
“It will boost Imran Khan’s standing, both at home and internationally,” she said. “It opens up the political space for him to not be seen as a pariah of the US.”
Islamabad wants to shore up relations with Washington after years of discord following the discovery of 9/11 architect Osama Bin Laden on Pakistani soil, where he was killed in a US raid in 2011.
The IMF has just approved a $6bn loan to help right Pakistan’s faltering economy, and keeping the US onside is crucial in maintaining the flow of Western assistance, said Raza Rumi, a Pakistan expert at Ithaca College.
The interaction between the two leaders — both celebrities-turned-politicians whose love lives once made regular tabloid fare — had been the subject of much speculation.
But according to Chaudhry, the Trump-Khan encounter was in some ways a “formality” because it will be the meetings between the US and Pakistan’s powerful army chief, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, who also travelled to Washington, where the “real substance of that topic will be discussed”.
Khan is seen as much closer to the army, which controls the country’s security and foreign policy, than his recent predecessors, and the presence of Bajwa “gives a little more credibility to whatever message the Pakistanis are bringing”, said Shuja Nawaz, a South Asia expert at the Atlantic Council.