Saleem Qamar Butt
Silver Lining in Pak-USA Relations
Updated: Aug 2, 2019
Prime Minister Imran Khan shall leave for his maiden visit to USA on 20th July 2019 and meet United States President Donald Trump on July 22, according to media reports quoting Foreign Office Spokesperson. The confirmation of the meeting between the two leaders comes a day after the US State Department on Tuesday, 2nd July designated the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) as a global terrorist group, paving the way for similar actions by the United Nations and other states. The same day, it was reported that top 13 leaders of the banned Jamaatud Dawa (JuD), including its chief Hafiz Saeed and Naib Emir Abdul Rehman Makki, have been booked in nearly two dozen cases for terror financing and money laundering under the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997. The United States, which has pressured Pakistan to crack down on militant groups, has offered a $10 million reward for evidence leading to Saeed's conviction. According to Pakistan’s foreign minister, talks between the two leaders would focus on “important regional matters”; just a reminder that Pakistan has greatly helped the United States in jumpstarting the ongoing US-Taliban dialogue.
Trump was consistent in his criticism of Pakistan after launching his South Asia and Afghanistan strategy in 2017. In November 2018, a row that began with Trump's interview to Fox News had led to a series of tweets by both the US head of state and Prime Minister Imran. President Trump, while talking about the reasons for ending the over a billion dollar annual aid for Pakistan at the beginning of 2018, had said the country didn’t do “a damn thing for us”. Subsequently, Prime Minister Imran had led the sharp reaction by political leaders to Trump’s tirade against Pakistan by hinting at review of foreign policy options and asking the US president to introspection on the real reasons for America’s failure in Afghanistan. Trump's stance, however, softened the next month with him acknowledging in a letter to the premier that the "war had cost both US and Pakistan" and sought the government’s “assistance and facilitation in achieving a negotiated settlement of the Afghan war”. Then in March, Trump had said that he hoped to meet Pakistani leader soon as he acknowledged that relations between the two countries are “now very good”.
Although, in a cursory glance at the developments in the last one year as briefly mentioned, it may appear that Trump’s policy of applying maximum political, economic and military pressure on Pakistan for getting a better deal has yielded positive result; however, in reality the outcome is not only mutually beneficial but also a testimony of prevalence and acceptance of Pakistan’s consistent policy of finding a regional political solution to Afghan conundrum as well as other regional disputes through dialogue. Thanks to POTUS Trump’s commitment to pull out from all unending wars with eyes set now on 2020 US Presidential elections, and having tried all other options in vain since December 2018; he finally realised that he could not achieve the amicable solution without Pakistan’s help. The United States now wants Islamabad to use its influence to persuade the Taliban to hold direct talks with the Afghan government. The militants refuse to talk to Kabul, saying that it’s a “puppet government”, with no real powers. Last week, Pakistan hosted an intra-Afghan meeting in Bhurban, which was seen as the first step towards making the Afghan government or more precisely Afghan representatives more acceptable to the Afghan Taliban. Kabul sent its representatives to the meeting, although the Taliban opted to stay out. On June 27, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani also visited Islamabad to seek its support for opening a communication link to the Taliban. Diplomatic observers in Washington opine that such efforts seem to have convinced the Trump administration that Islamabad is seriously supporting its efforts for a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan and PM Imran Khan’s visit will make it progress more smoothly.
Pakistan’s sincere endeavours in bringing around peace prospects notwithstanding, the cleavage in White House’s political goal and its military & intelligence’s desired end state in Afghanistan as well as in the region especially with the ongoing war warmongering against Iran and military build-up in Asia-Pacific in mind, US Administration may be looking at clinching a deal of retaining some military bases in Afghanistan or even a hybrid outcome of maintaining presence of further reduced military troops with more contractors for pronounced counter terrorism efforts that may not be acceptable to Taliban at all. The ultimate great power mêlée among USA, Russia and China, regional aspirations of primarily India and Iran, and survival instincts of CARs also need to be factored in before expecting any hunky-dory net result of 19 years long conflict in Afghanistan. Obviously, it is for America and not for Pakistan to take care of factors and variables that had impacted peace in Afghanistan and the region for decades and mostly depends on the ability to compromise and giving little spaces to each other by the big players in the game. The above developments are also indicative of some back-door diplomatic efforts in play (as a thanks giving) for addressing Indian concerns that may pave the way for commencement of dialogue between India and Pakistan with USA as a facilitator for resolution of lingering disputes mainly concerning Indian occupied Kashmir, violations of Indus Water Treaty and cessation of covert war in Pakistan by India. As for Afghan incumbent government, a cautious and deliberate handling in bilateral framework is bound to serve Pakistan better rather than aggrandizement.
While we may see the forthcoming visit of PM Imran khan to USA as a silver lining in Pak-USA relations, yet it for the foreign office to make comprehensive preparation for accruing maximum benefits from this breakthrough, which has to be viewed in the overall global and regional context rather than assuming it to be solely the outcome of our yet another facilitator role. The number of delegations accompanying PM must prepare business like agenda concerning our diplomatic, economic and military needs; besides, getting the FATF, World Bank, ADB and IMF’s noose around our neck further loosened. Attracting US’ direct investments in Pakistan should be the hall mark of success of the visit. Gone are the days when countries used to be viewed in exclusive big powers camps; diversity and multi-polarity in national policies is order of the day and maintaining a delicate balance is the art that our rulers and policy makers need to follow consistently. Pakistan’s Prime Minister will be well poised by strict adherence to the international diplomatic norms and by restricting to the prepared brief discussion points including joint press briefing, and leave the detailed discussion to respective technocrats’ delegations. Hoping for the best!
5th July 2019