Prime Minister Imran Khan will be visiting Washington to meet President Trump on July 22. The visit will provide an opportunity for both sides to “reset” the acrimonious relations between them. It would also mark a significant shift in Trump’s attitude towards Pakistan which he has accused of taking American money and doing nothing for the US. This change is due to American reliance on Pakistan to facilitate its dialogue with the Afghan Taliban. But, despite this latest bilateral convergence, there remain serious impediments in their relations. Therefore, the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington will be on a slippery slope.
To be sure, the visit will take place against the backdrop of several positive developments. The American-Taliban talks are making progress. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani recently visited Islamabad leading to an improvement in the bilateral relations. The Taliban leadership is also expected to meet the Prime Minister later in July to facilitate the Afghan peace process. Lately, the US has finally recognised the BLA as a terrorist organisation as demanded by Pakistan.
The credit for these developments goes primarily to the Prime Minister, who, unlike his predecessors, has spoken truth to American power. Not only has he persistently underscored the need for dialogue with the Taliban since there can be no military solution to America’s Afghan war, but he has also challenged Trump’s allegations by underscoring the sacrifices made by Pakistan in the Washington’s so-called war on terror. The Pakistani Armed Forces have also made significant contributions by their successful counterterrorism operations. All this has enforced a re-think in Washington about relations with Islamabad.
But, diplomatic rhetoric aside, it remains to be seen whether the American claims about “re-set” in relations with Pakistan are driven by tactical considerations limited to Pakistan helping to pull American chestnuts out of the Afghan fire or for long-term engagement based on strategic convergence. In his excellent 2013 book No Exit from Pakistan, American South Asian expert, Daniel Markey, advocates a long-term Pakistan-American strategic relationship in view of Pakistan’s geopolitical location, and role in counterterrorism efforts. But another American scholar, Michael Kugelman, commenting more recently on the forthcoming summit, maintains that this meeting will have a single-point agenda focused almost exclusively on Afghanistan “because a peace deal with the Taliban is the most important American goal in South Asia”. This indicates that the US has a tactical rather than strategic interest in relations with Pakistan.
More importantly, this fact is underscored by the recent Congressional testimony given by Acting Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells. She said, “Our approach to Pakistan has focused largely on securing Islamabad’s support for the Afghan peace process” and “we expect Pakistan to continue to play a constructive role in reconciliation efforts.” She added significantly, “We continue to urge Pakistan’s leaders to make good on their pledges to take sustained and irreversible actions against terrorist groups operating within the country’s borders.” Moreover, Wells highlighted that the “US also remains concerned about Pakistan’s development of certain categories of nuclear weapons and delivery systems”. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been even harsher in his criticism, telling a group of Indian-Americans last month that “we have taken a far tougher stand on Pakistan’s unacceptable support for terrorism in the region” owing to which the “US assistance to Pakistan had been drastically reduced”.
The clear focus by American officials on a limited and negative agenda with Pakistan involving facilitation of the Afghan peace talks, alleged Pakistani support for terrorism against India and Pakistan’s strategic programme (without any matching demands for restraint by India) demonstrates that Washington is clearly not interested in a long-term strategic partnership with Islamabad. In fact, it could be argued that once the US achieves a face-saving Afghan peace settlement, its hostility towards Pakistan would increase as it would no longer have any incentive to seek Pakistan’s cooperation.
It is essential for Pakistan’s policymakers to recognise the underlying reasons due to which there is a continuing asymmetry in the Pakistan-American relations. Pakistan has sought an enduring strategic partnership with the US whereas the US has a more tactical and transactional approach depending on its changing interests. Presently, America’s limited interest is for Pakistan to help end its Afghan misadventure. But America’s larger strategic interest is to use India as a counter-weight to contain China and to benefit economically from the large Indian market. It is, therefore, willing to support Indian regional hegemony, terrorism against Pakistan, massive military build-up and repression in occupied Kashmir as well as against its minorities.
Moreover, the US views Pakistan’s strategic partnership with China, especially CPEC as part of China’s BRI, as contrary to the American strategic objective to contain China.
In these circumstances, it would be unrealistic to expect any major breakthrough in the meeting with Trump or even further in the future. But we must also ensure that this meeting is not just a photo-opportunity, signifying nothing. To the extent that we have leverage with Washington — facilitation of the Afghan peace process, logistic and transit facilities, counterterrorism and intelligence cooperation — these must be used to gain tangible quid pro quos. There can be no free lunch, as the Americans say. At a minimum, America must help to end Indian-supported terrorism against Pakistan, recognise Pakistan’s right to develop strategic capabilities for credible deterrence against India, reimburse Pakistan’s withheld CSF monies and above all respect Pakistan’s redline about Indian hegemony. These would not emerge from one meeting. But the process for reciprocal steps must be linked to our continued assistance to the US.
In the final analysis, given the ongoing great power rivalry, Pakistan is fortunate to have options to offset the US; especially our relations with China and the possibilities of improved relations with Russia. These strategic options must not be squandered for the sake of tactical and transient gains from America. Consequently, we must be careful as we traverse the slippery slope to Washington and back.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 16th, 2019.