ISLAMABAD: When Prime Minister Imran Khan was preparing for his maiden visit to the US after assuming office, he was unsure of what to expect given US President Donald Trump’s unpredictable nature and his diatribe against Pakistan in the past.
The prime minister was advised to tread carefully as the world would be watching and any misstep could undermine the summit.
Speaking at the US Institute for Peace, Imran confirmed that he was “inundated with suggestions from all quarters” about what to discuss with the US President.
Even Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid, who is known for his quips, before the prime minister’s visit remarked: “Both Imran and Trump are same. God help us, I am scared.”
His statement was meant to suggest that given the unpredictability of both the leaders, anything could happen.
Amid this backdrop, when the prime minister finally stepped inside the White House and was greeted by President Trump, the other members of the Pakistani delegation were anxious. Even Imran visibly looked more cautious.
Inside the Oval Office, the two leaders sat down for a photo op and brief remarks.
Trump began by saying that he was honoured to welcome to the White House one of the greatest athletes of all times and now a popular leader.
The media interaction was supposed to be brief but with Trump in the driving seat, almost nothing goes as per plan. The interaction lasted over 40 minutes where Trump unexpectedly and perhaps unintentionally handed Imran and Pakistan a major PR victory.
In meetings such as the one between the leaders of two estranged allies, optics always matter. What Trump said on Kashmir was not only surprising for Pakistan but also rattled India and its jingoistic media given that it had always boasted a personal bond between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Trump. They were expecting Trump to speak Modi’s language with Imran.
But contrary to India’s expectations, Trump not only praised Pakistan’s efforts for facilitating the Afghan peace talks but also offered to mediate on the Kashmir dispute.
What came as a shock to everyone was Trump’s revelation that Modi himself had recently requested him to mediate between Pakistan and India over the Kashmir issue.
His statement stirred uproar in India, which was quick to reject Trump’s claim that Modi had requested mediation. The controversy echoed in the Indian parliament where the opposition sought a personal clarification from Modi despite the Indian external affairs ministry’s denial.
Before the visit, everyone was expecting the issue of Afghanistan to dominate the discussions. It certainly did, but only a few had expected that Kashmir and Pakistan-India relationship would steal the limelight.
It is undoubtedly a PR victory for Pakistan because India, under the Modi regime, has been working to isolate Pakistan globally for quite some time. The Indian media proudly claims that the Trump administration favours New Delhi over Islamabad.
Michael Kugelman, a senior associate working on South Asia at the Washington-based Wilson Center, summed up Imran-Trump meeting in his following tweet: “At any rate, my main takeaway is that Trump’s comments here, for the most part, are exactly what Pakistan wanted to hear. An unintended PR win for Islamabad.”
Imran and his team members, who went to the White House with lot of skepticism on the back of their minds, returned with an outcome that Pakistan would be pretty glad with.
Imran himself had acknowledged that he and his delegation were ‘blown away’ by President Trump’s hospitality and straight talk.
Nevertheless, ultimately what determines the future of Pak-US relations or Trump-Imran bonhomie is how far Islamabad will be able to deliver on two key US demands that include persuading Afghan Taliban for a permanent ceasefire and convince them for an intra-Afghan dialogue.
In a tweet, Prime Minister Imran while thanking Trump for his “warm and gracious hospitality”, assured him that Pakistan would do “everything within its power to facilitate the Afghan peace process”.