(WASHINGTON) — President Donald Trump brought the leader of Pakistan to the White House on Monday to discuss a peace deal in neighboring Afghanistan, breezily declaring he could end the longest U.S. war in a week but doesn’t want to wipe the country “off the face of the earth.”
Afghanistan topped the agenda as Trump met with Prime Minister Imran Khan, with the president saying he hoped Pakistan would use its influence with the Taliban to advance a peace deal and help end the nearly two-decade old U.S. war.
But even as he talked up diplomacy and the prospects of peace, Trump claimed he could also easily win a war that began when the U.S. went after Osama bin Laden and his Taliban supporters following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“I could win that war in a week. I just don’t want to kill 10 million people,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “If I wanted to win that war, Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the earth. It would be gone. It would be over, literally, in 10 days.”
Nonetheless, sitting alongside Khan, Trump said he wanted a peaceful resolution. “So we’re working with Pakistan and others to extricate ourselves.”
The pleasantries in the Oval Office were an abrupt change from when Trump cut millions of dollars in aid to Pakistan, saying the only thing it offered the United States was “lies” and “deceit.”
Khan has bashed Trump too, but now says Pakistan is also eager to work with the United States to end the war.
The United States wants Pakistan to use its leverage to get the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government and agree to a peaceful future for their country. U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has been holding talks with the Taliban for months, but so far the militant group has refused to talk directly to the Afghan government. There has been no let-up in terrorist attacks during the U.S.-Taliban talks.
“It’s the closest we’ve been to a peace deal,” Khan told Trump. “And I hope in the coming days we will be able to urge the Taliban to speak to the Afghan government and come to a political solution.”
Trump’s casual comments about wiping Afghanistan off the map will likely unsettle Afghans, who have fought against the Taliban alongside their U.S. and NATO partners for years. Afghans also are wary of Pakistan’s involvement in their country’s future. For years, the Afghans have accused Pakistan of creating instability in their country by giving militants a safe place from which to stage attacks across the two countries long, porous border.
As the war has grinded on, relations between the U.S. and Pakistan have gone up and down.
They reached rock bottom under former President Barack Obama when the U.S. carried out the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan without giving Islamabad a heads-up. The relationship didn’t improve when Trump took office.
In January 2018, Trump tweeted: “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help.”
Khan, the former captain of the Pakistani cricket team who assumed office last fall, has fired back.
He tweeted that Pakistan has suffered 75,000 casualties and lost $123 billion in the “US War on Terror,” despite the fact that no Pakistanis were involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. He says the U.S. has only provided a “minuscule” $20 billion in aid.
Now, both countries say they want to smooth tensions.
Their meeting was much more than a courtesy call. Khan traveled to Washington with Pakistan’s top military official and the head of the country’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, which has a long history of connections to militant groups.
Before he arrived, Pakistan arrested a radical cleric and U.S.-wanted terror suspect implicated in the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, that killed 166 people. The U.S. had offered a $10 million reward for Hafiz Saeed’s arrest, but for months, he lived freely in Pakistan.
Pakistan, which is suffering economically, wants to reset relations with the U.S. in hopes of securing more investment, trade and possibly a restoration of American aid that Trump cut. The president hinted that American aid could be restored depending on their talks.
There are important issues to discuss beyond Afghanistan, including energy, defense and trade. The two also will talk about India, an archenemy of Pakistan and Islamabad’s cozy relations with China.
They were also expected to discuss a U.S. demand that Pakistan release Dr. Shakil Afridi, a doctor who ran a fake vaccination campaign to help the CIA confirm the whereabouts of bin Laden and kill him in a May 2011 raid that the U.S. carried out without first informing the Pakistani government.
Trump also said that when he met recently with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he was asked if he would like to mediate a dispute between India and Pakistan over Himalayan territory of Kashmir.
Raveesh Kumar, a spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, tweeted afterward that “no such request has been made by the prime minister” and that all issues with Pakistan are discussed only bilaterally.