In what is expected to be a one hour meeting between Trump and Imran, the sort of ambitious agenda that is being talked about appears a little far-fetched.
There is a lot of anticipation and expectation, and also some apprehension, in Pakistan over the forthcoming meeting between Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan and the US President Donald Trump on 22 July. As the endgame of the latest season of the never-ending Great Game in Afghanistan heads towards its ignominious closure with the US seeking to cut and run, Imran Khan could well be visiting Washington as the triumphant head of a country that outmanoeuvred the mightiest military power in the world and brought it to its knees in Afghanistan.
But even in their triumphalism the Pakistanis are aware that despite the US being defeated and desperate to get a face-saving exit from Afghanistan, it remains a hyper power, and Pakistan a basket case desperate for financial bailouts to stay afloat. Imran Khan and his boss and ‘selector’, the army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa, would therefore use the visit to leverage a bailout for the US in Afghanistan in exchange for a financial bailout for Pakistan, including easing the pressure from international institutions like IMF and FATF. There is also talk of the Pakistanis pushing the envelope to seek some sort of US intervention, involvement, or influence on India.
In an article, a former Ambassador to US and High Commissioner to India has listed out 12 things that Imran Khan needs to convey to Trump. Eight of these relate to India and not even one to Afghanistan. Given that the former diplomat is a member of the PMs Advisory Council on Foreign Affairs, which comprises other characters of his ilk and intellect, it is a bit of a no brainer that Pakistan will try and extract whatever it can on India and for its own collapsing economy, and in return concede some of the crumbs that the Americans seek on Afghanistan. From a time when the US was pressing Pakistan to ‘do more’ on curbing the Taliban to now when all they are seeking is Pakistan using its influence to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and make them amenable to the minimalist requests that will enable the US to abandon Afghanistan with a modicum of dignity intact, the Pakistanis would be feeling they are in a sweet spot to get the maximum in return for giving the minimum.
Bajwa, who is accompanying the ‘selected’ PM, and his sidekick, the new ISI chief Faiz Hameed, is expected do most of the talking, deal-making, and giving assurances dripping with insincerity to bamboozle the Americans. Even though the Americans have been taken for a right royal ride by the Pakistanis, they are smart enough to know that anything Imran says or assures is not worth a farthing. Hence, Bajwa is necessary for underwriting whatever snake oil Imran Khan sells in Washington, including on tempering their relationship with China and balancing it by rebuilding ties with the West. The China factor is of course a classic double-game that Pakistan is so adept at playing with the Americans. The fact of the matter is that Pakistan is now just too deeply embedded in the Chinese scheme to extricate itself, and yet it also knows that China cannot pull out all its chestnuts out of the fire, for which they need to stay engaged with the West, in particular the US.
The problem however is that it is still not clear if Bajwa will also be part of the meeting between Imran and Trump or will only be involved in the back room deals working out details of the modalities of US surrender and safe exit from Afghanistan. The thing is that given the manner in which the Trump administration is known to function, and the sort of very personalised and transactional sort of diplomacy that Trump is notorious for, unless Trump buys into the cock-and-bull story the Pakistanis have prepared for him, everything else will be up in the air. In any case, Pakistan is perceived quite negatively by much of the permanent establishment in Washington — Pentagon, CIA and even much of the State Department, not to mention the National Security Council and the think-tanks and academics. Trump himself has been quite unrestrained while referring to Pakistan, especially in his tweets. He welcomed 2018 by taking aim at Pakistan and later that year had a very public Twitter spat with Imran Khan.
The Pakistanis however believe that they have the whole thing worked out, more so because the visit itself came about not through normal diplomatic channels but through a back channel, probably two back channels. One of the back channels is believed to be Trump’s son-in-law who was a college mate of Ali Siddiqui, the former Pakistani ambassador to the US. Siddiqui who has long been a target of the Imran Khan regime has been rehabilitated because of his connections with Jared Kushner. This, the Pakistanis hope, will help them get Trump’s ear. The other back channel that has apparently been instrumental is that of Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, and the man working out the surrender deal, euphemistically called a face saving exit, on behalf of Trump. Khalilzad has pushed for the meeting to give more momentum to the Afghan talks.
The fact that the visit is a White House initiative begs the question if the State Department was out of the loop on the visit. Many eyebrows were raised when despite the Pakistanis having announced the visit on 4 July, nearly a week later the State Department spokesperson said that she couldn’t confirm the visit. The next day the White House confirmed it and said it would “focus on strengthening cooperation between the United States and Pakistan to bring peace, stability, and economic prosperity to a region that has seen far too much conflict. President Trump and Prime Minister Khan will discuss a range of issues, including counter-terrorism, defence, energy and trade, with the goal of creating the conditions for a peaceful South Asia and an enduring partnership between our two countries.” Later the State Department said that since it was an official White House visit, they would let give details of the same.
The State Department was however involved in making a gesture — designating the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) as Specially Designated Global Terrorists — which the Americans would have thought will go down well with the Pakistanis and make them more forthcoming on the Americans sought from them. For their part, the Pakistanis resorted to their time-tested tactic of making a token offering on the issue of terrorism which never fails to mislead the Americans who always appear desperate to see some sign of change in Pakistan. As is their wont, a day after the designation of BLA, the Pakistanis announced with some fanfare that terror financing cases had been registered against the Lashkar-e-Taiba chief, Hafiz Saeed, and 12 others. Later, Saeed was arrested on the same terror finance charges.
Trump was quick to welcome, and take credit for this action by the Pakistanis, something that works really well in the Pakistani playbook. This was a move that sought to kill two, or three, birds with one stone. One, it went down well with Trump and gave him the impression that the Pakistanis were now starting to deliver; two, it ostensibly delivers on high level commitments given to FATF which gives US some space to use its influence and ease pressure on Pakistan; finally, it also is handy in conveying to Trump that now that Pakistan has started acting against India’s bete noire, Trump can press India to pipe down and ease up on Pakistan.
The apprehension however is that much of what is being expected from the Imran visit might not come through. A lot hinges on the chemistry between the ‘selected’ Prime Minister and the elected President, both men with fragile egos and pushy about their agenda. If Trump pushes too hard, and Imran pushes back, the entire thing may come crashing down. Imran cannot afford to come back tail between his legs but has to be mindful that the option of shooting from the hip will cause even more harm. Even if the chemistry works, there is the whole institutional resistance on both sides that has to be tackled. This won’t be easy given the mood in Washington. Even so, while there is a reasonable chance of some kind of positive vibes emerging from the meeting. But it is highly unlikely that the two countries will go back to the sort of relationship they shared when Pakistan a most allied ally of the US. There is just too much bad blood and distrust for that too happen.
Finally, in what is expected to be a one hour meeting between Trump and Imran, the sort of ambitious agenda that is being talked about appears a little far-fetched. The focus will remain primarily on Afghanistan from the US side, and on India and economy from the Pakistani side. Any give by the US on India will sour relations with the one country in the region that has a very positive view of the US. Coming on the back of an unnecessary trade spat, the US hyphenating India with Pakistan or finding the road to Afghanistan through New Delhi, will ruin all the good work done over the last two decades to further the Indo-US strategic partnership. On the economy too, any major US concession will severely undermine the one pressure point that seems to have got it some traction with Pakistan. That seems improbably for now, more so given Trump’s transactional proclivities. But then Trump has been known to strike or enter bad deals, and the Americans in general haven’t always been very smart in understanding the lemons that have been routinely sold by the Pakistanis.
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Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. His published works include: Balochistan: Forgotten War, Forsaken People (Monograph, 2017) Corridor Calculus: China-Pakistan Economic Corridor & China’s comprador ...Read More +