Imran Khan’s US visit: courting an unpredictable ally

Published: July 18, 2019


PHOTO: FILE The writer is a former ambassador

Prime Minister Imran Khan will be visiting Washington from 21-23 July at the invitation of President Donald Trump. Different explanations have been offered about the importance of the visit but there is unanimity amongst observers that Afghanistan will be the central theme of the visit. Other issues, if raised, would surround secondary importance. However, one thing is clear: President Trump must have realised that his diatribe against Pakistan during New Year last year on Twitter did not work, certainly not in Afghanistan.

Therefore, the businessman in Trump would not let go of the customer without a bargain. Here the bargain for Trump is Afghanistan while Pakistan’s facilitation of talks between the Taliban and the US is the real business. Therefore, Imran Khan’s visit will be taking place in a fast-changing international and regional scenario ranging from Afghanistan to the US-China trade war to the US-Iran standoff. Incidentally, Pakistan gets affected in all these scenarios which would require deft handling by Imran Khan and his team. In the regional context, the following scenarios may have direct relevance to Pakistan in which President Trump may require Pakistan’s direct or indirect support:

First, a peace agreement on Afghanistan, which now seems in sight, is a prize President Trump would be looking for his re-election next year as an achievement to celebrate. This achievement is likely to save America $50 billion per annum while return of the US soldiers would be an added bonus to cash in during the election campaign. A failure to achieve the agreement is likely to be dumped on Pakistan’s shoulders. Mr Khan will be required to forewarn President Trump about the spoilers, in the form of Afghans and outsiders, in the game.

Second, the ongoing tiff with Iran also impels Trump to shed Afghan liability and concentrate on the Gulf States to cough up more dollars to “strengthen” their defences against the Iranian reprisals in case a war breaks out. Here Pakistan would be faced with pressure from the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, while the US may manipulate to push Pakistan in the ensuing crisis in order to further pressurise Iran. Undoubtedly, it would be walking on a tightrope for Pakistan. By declaring the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) a terrorist organisation, the US has given a strong signal to Pakistan that it respects Pakistan’s sovereignty, much to the chagrin of India which supports the organisation in cash and kind.

Third, while propping up India as a counterweight to China in the Asia-Pacific region the US cannot ignore Pakistan in the region. The post-Pulwama developments on the security scene should serve as a stark reminder to all and sundry that Pakistan has acquired the necessary threshold to defend its interests in situation of a symmetrical or non-symmetrical war. Indian challenge to create a “new normal” under the nuclear overhang has been accepted by Pakistan and adequately responded. Already some American and European commentators have expressed doubts about India’s credibility as a formidable partner to counter Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific region or the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Therefore, the US will have to deal with Pakistan on its own merit; India may be big in size but the geographical advantages enjoyed by Pakistan and quality of its military prowess is not lost on the American policymakers. This should give enough confidence to Imran Khan to face up to his interlocutors in the US.

While above are the major factors which may overshadow the mood during the visit, Prime Minister Imran Khan would be expected to articulate on issues that have direct bearing on Pakistan. The US pressure on the IMF and FATF negotiations have been deliberately leaked in the media to show Pakistan in poor light yet in the end Pakistan got the breather. However, this should serve as a lesson to Mr Khan and his team that irrespective of sacrifices rendered by Pakistan during the War on Terror (WoT), big powers only focus on the menu served on the table. Remember those Mujahideen eulogised by president Reagan as “moral equivalent of our (American) forefathers” during Soviet invasion of Afghanistan were easily shunned as “archaic warlords”, “extremists/fundamentalists”, “drug barons” and “terrorists” once the Soviet Union withdrew and imploded into 15 states. Try to remind any American officials about “our contribution” and the pet response would come: “that was then, talk of now”.

The death and destruction caused in Afghanistan after the 9/11 largely at the hands of the US is well documented and frequently haunts American historians and commentators. But being a hyper power, the US policymakers stoically display intransigence in order to maintain their dominance. In this backdrop, American officials, particularly President Trump, are likely to make a pitch for the future contours of the US-Pakistan relationship. While President Trump will be making his demands on Pakistan, PM Khan should make a frank case for Pakistan and draw our redlines. The following issues should be raised even if some of them may sound repetitions:

First, the US owes Pakistan approximately $2 billion under Coalition Support Fund (CSF); reimbursement of this money is not a favour to Pakistan but it’s an expenditure which Pakistan has already incurred and the US is supposed to refund it as has been the case ever since the American troops landed in Afghanistan.

Second, while Pakistan has sincerely facilitated the US-Taliban talks and a glimmer of hope for peace and stability is on the horizon, the US must ensure that no Afghans or outsiders (India) are allowed to spoil the show. It must be made amply clear that India would not be allowed to harm Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan or use Afghan territory to create trouble in Balochistan.

Third, peace in South Asia is contingent upon Indian readiness for talks with Pakistan. However, resumption of talks would not be a favour to Pakistan. Similarly, Indian refrain of “tackle terrorism first” has lost its sheen; the main question is redressal of Kashmiri peoples’ genuine grievances. What the US can do is to nudge India to resume the dialogue. Since the US is enjoying the honeymoon with India, any expectation of American mediation on the Kashmir issue should be avoided. Mr Khan would be well advised to drop the word “mediation” from his talking points because the US ceases to be an honest broker.

Fourth, make it clear that the situation in the Middle East may go out of control unless steps are taken to defuse it. In case of a war Pakistan is likely to suffer the most as its oil supplies come from the Gulf region.

Fifth, while Pakistan would not seek a special favour from the US, it would be justified in maintaining normal relations with the US; revival of bilateral strategic dialogue mechanism and cooperation in various fields can give impetus to improvement of bilateral relations.

Finally, peace in Afghanistan is a good omen for Pakistan and the region. Various circumstances have paved the way for Pakistan to evolve a stable regional policy which hinges more on promoting peace and stability in the neighbourhood than looking for allies far afield. This should give added confidence to Mr Khan while in Washington.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 18th, 2019.

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