The three-day historic visit of the Pakistani PM Imran Khan to the US has come to an end. The overwhelming perception one gets from the visit is that a closer relationship between the two countries than during the last five years looks possible. The future will show if that hope is justified. While Mr. Trump’s acceptance of the Imran Khan invitation to visit Pakistan is certainly a positive sign, our optimism needs to be guarded.
Among the many meetings that took place during this visit was that with the head of the US Senate Judiciary Committee and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Lindsey Graham. Along with his close friend, late Senator John McCain, Senator Graham has been the most vocal and active supporter of refreshing the US-Pakistan bilateral ties in the interest of regional peace and security. Keeping American interests in Afghanistan in mind, he expressed the hope that Imran Khan’s White House meeting would be the best opportunity in decades to have a beneficial strategic relationship with the US, he added that “This will help us secure Afghanistan and the region long-term.”
A number of outstanding problems, with Afghanistan on top of the lot, were discussed. The end of the 18 Year long war in Afghanistan one was Presidential Candidate Trump’s major electoral promises, he is under time pressure to deliver on Zalmay Khalilzad’s negotiations with the Taliban before the next election forthcoming in 2020. A peace agreement with the Taliban would be an asset for Mr. Trump’s re-election. The negotiations are to be concluded by September 2019 when the Afghan presidential elections have been re(scheduled). The next hurdle is that The US military never wants to fully withdraw from Afghanistan but ‘keep a foot in the Afghan door’ by retaining a base or two and of course keep the pro-American government of President Ghani in place. Right now the talks are stuck on exactly these issues; the time-line for a US withdrawal, the reluctance of the Taliban to talk to President Ghani and his government whom they rightly regard as American stooges and the fact that Taliban do not agree to a cease-fire before all issues are settled. Even the “agreed” notion that civilian targets should be spared was put to rest with next day’s attack on Kabul University that claimed multiple civilian lives. Now Pakistan is expected to find the solution for all these problems and to deliver the Taliban ‘on a platter’ to Trump, this is of course patently impossible. This makes Pakistan a handy scapegoat for any failure. Given this situation our optimism with regard to the outcome of this visit should be guarded and be ready to hear ‘do more’ again and again.
Indo-Pakistani relations and the Kashmir conflict was next in the discussions in DC. The offer to mediate between India and Pakistan to resolve the conflict and statement that Indian PM Modi had asked him to do so has become a problem. The denial of any such proposal from the Indian came swiftly, “It has been India’s consistent position that all outstanding issues with Pakistan are discussed only bilaterally. Any engagement with Pakistan would require an end to cross border terrorism. The Simla Agreement & the Lahore Declaration provide the basis to resolve all issues between India & Pakistan bilaterally”. The Indian Foreign Ministry’s statement was very predictable. Making this offer President Trump departed from the stand that previous American Presidents have taken, keeping away from this hot issue. And let’s face it: any US mediation in Kashmir can only turn out to be a beneficial for Pakistan and the Kashmiris.
The current visit is important for another reason, namely the improvement of the almost completely suspended relations between the US and Pakistani armed forces. That is why COAS Gen Bajwa, accompanied by the ISI Gen Chief Lt Faiz Hamid, met the US military elite including the outgoing Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) General Dunford and the present Army Chief Gen Milley who is President Donald Trump’s pick to replace General Dunford as Chairman. Negotiations would have control around Pakistani efforts and their success to control security along the border with Afghanistan the restoration of the suspended security assistance from the Pakistani side. If Pakistan has to do the US bidding in the US-Afghan peace negotiations this would be a logical consequence. The incoming Chairman JCS Gen Milley seems to be aware of this fact when he said his “objective will be to preserve the defence relationship between the United States and Pakistan even as we press Pakistan to take action on US requests. While we have suspended security assistance and paused major defence dialogues, we need to maintain strong military-to-military ties based on our shared interests.” That Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are safe in the hands of one of the most professional armies in the world, is this well known to the United States. We share our intelligence with the US about the way we have installed the safety measures around our nuclear programme.
For both Pakistan and the PM the visit to Washington was excellent. A good working relationship with the US – as with any other country in the world – is very much in Pakistan’s interest, the history of US-Pakistan relations has taught us that there is Indian induced “Pakistan fatigue” in Washington. What more can the Indians want than have someone like Asif Zardari’s close confidante Hussain Haqqani, formerly Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US, now lobbying actively against Pakistan on India’s behalf. Asif Zardari is strangely silent on this! While the “Pakistan Fatigue” won’t change easily, Pakistan today is well situated in its international relations. The gravity on regional relations has shifted to China and Russia with SCO in the centre. If Pakistan is looking for support in solving regional conflicts like Kashmir FM Qureshi has dampened the all-out optimism by saying in his press conference that “I am not saying that this sitting has completely changed the way things were for us. I am saying that a door that was completely shut for us … a possibility has been created for that door to be opened. We have come here in all seriousness to rebuild this relationship. The stiffness that once existed in our relationship has been lessened.” Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s statements seems to be a realistic assessment. Our relationship with the US is on a ten year cycle, 1980-1990 Excellent, 1990-2000 bad, 2000-2010 Excellent and 2010 to 2019 very bad, 2020 onwards is now looking good? To keep our feet firmly on the ground. It is important to keep the tenor of the Foreign Minister’s statement in mind.
The writer is a defense and security analyst.