Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan is all set to be a guest of President Donald Trump at the White House on his maiden visit to the United States, hoping to leverage Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan in a bid to end its isolation. Khan took over as prime minister in August last year, at a time when the economy was in free fall and US relations had been rolled back substantially.
Khan will be accompanied by the powerful Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Bajwa. The two hope to repair a relationship with the US at a time when bilateral relations are at their lowest ebb. In December 2017, the Trump administration released its national security strategy, identifying Pakistan as a “destabilizing force” in Afghanistan, and the US “continues to face threats from transnational terrorists and militants operating from within Pakistan.”
Trump continued to rail against Pakistan publicly. By the time Khan took over, not only was the country facing international isolation, it was also in the midst of a major economic downturn. The fact that he has managed an invitation to the US is being seen as a major achievement, given the recent deep freeze in the relationship.
“The US recognizes that Pakistan has a major role to play in Afghanistan. They want to incentivize them to keep pushing the Taliban to continue to the peace talks and arrive at a peace settlement,” Ambassador Arun Singh told Asia Times. Singh, a former Indian diplomat, dealt with the Pakistan desk for several years, and then did stints in Israel, France and the US as India’s ambassador.
Singh believes Khan will be keen to end the international isolation that Pakistan currently faces. Naturally, the US can play a big role in helping them come in from the cold. The last few years have seen Pakistan staring into a barrel aimed by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) for not doing enough to curb terrorism. The FATF has put Pakistan on the “grey list” and could put it on the “black list” in October if it fails to show major progress in combating terrorism.
“Certainly, FATF is likely to be a major talking point. Apart from India, the US has been the second most important player in the FATF discussions on Pakistan,” Syed Hassan Akbar, director of strategic security studies at the Islamabad-based Jinnah Institute, told Asia Times. “Washington has also played a major role in the UNSC designation of Masood Azhar. Pakistan will seek to appraise the US leadership of the latest actions it has taken on the FATF recommendations and in cracking down against terrorism,” he said.
In fact, Pakistan arrested Hafiz Sayeed, the founder and emir (leader) of the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), which operates largely in Kashmir, India. The LeT has also carried out attacks in other parts of India, the biggest being the assault in Mumbai on November 26, 2008. Sayeed and the LeT were designated as “international terrorists” by the UN nearly a decade ago. However, Sayeed managed to get out of prison and even formed a political party before the general elections last year. Pakistan observers believe that Sayeed was “propped up” by the Pakistan Army to undermine Nawaz Sharif and his PML(N) in their home state of Punjab. However, Sayeed was arrested on July 17 ahead of Khan’s visit to the US.
President Trump immediately took credit for the move, tweeting on Wednesday evening, “After a ten year search, the so-called mastermind of the Mumbai terror attacks has been arrested in Pakistan. Great pressure has been exerted over the last two years to find him!” However, Trump seemed to be unaware that not only was Sayeed free, but also openly campaigning for his political party in the general elections. This could be problematic for Khan as he prepares to meet a mercurial Trump.
“Counter-terror cooperation will remain a cornerstone of the Pak-US bilateral relationship. The two delegations are likely to spend considerable time discussing the reconciliation process in Afghanistan. Trump’s emphasis on terrorism will also be a challenge for Imran Khan, but with both leaders atuned to populism, the trip will also provide an opportunity for them to strike a personal relationship – something seen as key in dealing with a Trump White House,” Hassan Akbar said.
Building peace post-Balakot strike
Leveraging Pakistan’s role in the ongoing Afghan peace talks will decide how much play Khan gets in Washington, says Ambassador Singh. “So long as the peace process is on, the main challenge is to ensure the intra-Afghan process remains on track.” This, he said, can only be done by the Pakistanis, who have held considerable leverage with the Mujahideen groups since the days of the Cold War, when the CIA teamed up with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to fund the armed rebellion against the erstwhile Soviet Union.
Khan is also keen to get the US to push India into restarting the peace talks that have been in limbo for over a year. Successive terror attacks by Pakistan-based terrorists on Indian military installations led to heightened tensions in the region. After 40 Indian policemen were killed by a suicide bomber in Pulwama, Kashmir, the Pakistan-based terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility in February this year. India retaliated by sending combat jets to bomb targets in Pakistan. This is believed to have been supported by the US, with Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton personally clearing the decks for Indian retaliatory action in the White House.
The strikes by Indian combat jets in Balakot in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region led to another round of heightened tensions. However, while tempers cooled a few days later, the two countries continue to be on the edge and only opened up their air space to each other on July 16 after months of closure. Khan is also set to hold a public event with the Pakistani community in the US. However, while Khan might be a popular leader right now, he will be walking on a tightrope in Washington, hoping to regain some of his country’s past bilateral glory.