The White House has finally extended the long sought-after invitation to Prime Minister Imran Khan to visit the United States. What should Pakistan’s expectations be from this visit, scheduled this month, is important to analyse.
The Trump administration’s current interests in Pakistan revolve around four main areas. First and foremost is Afghanistan. President Trump has rightly concluded that it is time to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan. The talks between the US and the Taliban have reached a critical stage and an agreement seems in sight, provided the Taliban concede to sharing power with the Afghan leadership; allow women’s rights; and ensure that Islamic State (IS) and its affiliates do not operate on and use the Afghan territory. The US expects the Pakistani military to assert its influence over the Taliban leadership to accept these demands. Pakistan has already pushed the Taliban to be more accommodative but the Trump administration and the US military believe there is still some scope to extract further concessions from them. Despite Pakistan’s guarantees, the Trump administration believes that the Taliban leadership and their families use the tribal areas to seek political sanctuary. It is undeniable that Pakistan’s long association with the Taliban gives it leverage over the group that no other country enjoys.
Among other major concerns of the US is Pakistan’s strong strategic relations with China and it is highly averse to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), in particular. The US is of the view that China has expanded its influence in the region through CPEC and the development of the Gwadar port has given it valuable access to the Arabian Sea. For Pakistan, China remains the most stable strategic partner, a source of economic assistance and a major ally in countervailing India. Any change in the Pakistan-China relationship remains unforeseen. In fact, the more the US-India partnership grows or Washington’s demands of Pakistan increase, the latter is more likely to lean further on China.
It is expected that President Trump would want Pakistan to pressurise Iran by supporting the economic squeeze and the drive to politically isolate Iran. For Pakistan, Iran is an important neighbour, and maintaining good relations with it is of utmost importance that cannot be ignored. Besides, Pakistan has a significant Shia population that has strong bonds with Iran that should not be overlooked. Previous governments must be accredited with the successive endeavours to stay away from the Arab-Iran conflict, even though it has not been easy considering the close bonds that bind us with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Despite Pakistan’s actions in compliance of the UN resolutions to ban militant organisations like Lashkar-e-Tayaba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, etcetera, the US remains concerned that these still remain active and enjoy the support of some elements in the establishment. To remove these lingering doubts the government has further tightened measures.
Heightened tensions between India and Pakistan are unlikely to be given much importance by the Trump administration, although Pakistan would like to bring it under discussion. It is only when the situation invites the danger of a direct conflict between these neighbours that the matter resonates in Washington. What is rather disturbing is that Washington is ignoring the gross human rights violations in Kashmir despite reports by the UN and US highlighting a dismal picture of the situation. Moreover, there is a general perception that India’s policy of trying to ignore or isolate Pakistan facilitates Washington in extracting concessions.
Imran Khan’s visit to the US at a time when the country is facing multiple crises and is in a position of weakness cannot be overlooked. Its economy is in the care of the IMF and being supported by easy loans and grants from friendly countries that include China, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar.
However, the domestic political situation is more damaging. The hostility between the government and the opposition against each other even dwarfs the hostility towards India. These weaknesses have reduced Pakistan’s ability to maximise its potential as a nation in several ways.
Notwithstanding these shortcomings, it is very important to also look at the US-Pakistan relations on a long-term basis beyond the immediate domestic and external compulsions. Despite the US relations with India and Pakistan’s proximity to China, there are mutual benefits for Washington and Islamabad to maintain good relations. America remains a major destination for Pakistan’s exports, especially textiles. It is also the most preferred country for higher education and technology. The US influence on world markets and institutions remains unchallenged and is likely to remain so for at least a decade or more.
Despite the predicaments Pakistan presently faces, it is one of the leading Muslim countries. Its geographic location, conventional and nuclear capability, a substantial educated elite and availability of skilled workers and a market of several million people remain unexploited.
The overwhelming centrality of security as the key driver of American interest in Pakistan has narrowed down and placed limitations on engaging with Pakistan. Ever since its creation, Washington has looked at Pakistan through the security lens. Even today, Afghanistan and the Indo-Pak relations remain a security issue. Viewing Pakistan through the security lens has obviously increased the importance of the military over the years. It is not surprising that visitors from the US — whether they are from the administration, Congressmen or Senators, and of course military commanders — give high priority to meetings with the Chief of Army Staff and Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff. The one-sided security-focused view of the US has placed a major limitation on the relationship. Moreover, the security relationship has not helped democracy, nor has it helped Pakistan in developing a cooperative relationship with its neighbours, as Pakistan has invariably been dragged in one regional conflict or the other. Nor has it helped our economy, as both civilian and military rulers looked towards the US, China, Japan and Western countries for economic aid.
The visit of the Prime Minister to the US provides an opportunity to revisit the fundamentals of the Pak-US relationship and build on more mutually-beneficial parameters.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 10th, 2019.