US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan deliver remarks to members of the news media, behind a model of a future Air Force One, during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on July 22, 2019. Photo: Pakistani Prime Minister's Office / Handout / Anadolu Agency

It was more like a job interview than a state visit of the prime minister of a “sovereign country” to the United States. When Pakistani PM Imran Khan met US President Donald Trump on Monday, he looked like a jobless man desperately searching for a position when no alternative vacancies are available.

“Mr National Chauffeur of Pakistan” Imran Khan (a title he earned when he chauffeured Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and the leaders of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates around) was welcomed by his own foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, and officials of the Embassy of Pakistan to the US. However, no one – at least not in the footage I saw – from the US administration could be seen welcoming him, and believe me, it could have been the worst possible start to a state visit ever.

It tells you how unimportant Pakistan is on the diplomatic front right now. The US administration put a list of demands in front of Khan, and he had no option but to nod his head every time he was ordered to “assist” the US in its “war on terror.” Beggars can’t be choosers, after all.

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More than just ‘aid and investment’

According to a White House press release, the initial statement by Khan included the following very important sentences:

“You know, we’ve been fighting wars together: first Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan was a frontline state, allied to the US. And then again the war on terror, which was after 9/11. So I look forward to my conversation with you, Mr President.”

Still can’t connect the dots? It is quite clear that Pakistan is ready to offer “any” sort of help that the US administration asks for. Khan was showing Pakistan’s resume to the US for another vacancy – this time for the post of mediator at the negotiating table between Washington and the Afghan Taliban. After all, for Pakistan US$1.3 billion is at stake this time.

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It is more than just the “aid and investment” the bankrupt economy is desperately expecting this time from its previous boss. For Pakistan, the current situation is not satisfying at all economically and diplomatically. The Financial Action Task Force’s October deadline is just around the corner and Pakistan is already being hit hard by the global financial markets and institutions – an estimated sum of $10 billion per annum loss to its economy – after it was put on the gray list last year for failing to counter money-laundering and terror financing. The United States’ diplomatic support would be quite necessary against India’s lobbying strategy to avoid being put on the FATF blacklist.

After many strict economic sanctions, being placed on the blacklist would be nothing short of a kick that will eventually lead the already struggling economy toward an absolute meltdown. Furthermore, the Khan administration might also be looking forward to Trump’s assistance in persuading the International Monetary Fund to show some leniency in the three-year course of its $6 billion extended fund facility provided to Pakistan for complying with the IMF’s structural conditionality.

US-Taliban peace talks

Pakistan has provided great support to the United States since October last year – it not only helped to persuade the Afghan Taliban to sit with the US at the negotiating table, but also to sit with the Afghan government (a meeting this month in Qatar was the result). Also, it released three high-ranking members of the Afghan Taliban to boost the peace talks, namely Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (co-founder of the Afghan Taliban), Mullah Abdul Samad Sani and Mullah Mohammad Rasul, at the behest of the United States. This was aimed at providing the Taliban with  an incentive to show their (and America’s indirectly) willingness to end the 17-year-long Afghan war. Trump told the media that the US was working with Pakistan and others on getting an agreement signed with the Taliban.

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Afghan talks with Taliban in Moscow.

President Trump wants to end the Afghan war before the 2020 general election. Pakistan is one of the major stakeholders in the US-Taliban peace talks and the recent Afghan-Taliban talks. Its support would help Trump deal with one of biggest foreign-policy issues (after North Korea’s denuclearization) the United States is facing right now – a great potential source of many votes for the Republicans in the 2020 election. If Pakistan’s support results in a successful and peaceful end to the Afghan war by or before September 1 (as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo believes), there is no doubt that Pakistan will find it gains both economically and diplomatically, having a possible exit from FATF’s gray list. A $1.3 billion aid package, Trump said on Monday, could be restored if he sees some progress in this regard.

Hostages – above Khan’s pay grade

When asked whether Pakistan will release Dr Shakil Afridi – the doctor who helped the US Central Intelligence Agency to confirm Osama bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad, Pakistan – in an interview with Bret Bair on Fox News – Khan replied that some decisions are difficult for a prime minister in a democracy. Can’t he say that it is beyond his pay grade?

He added that Afridi could be given back in exchange for Dr Aafia Siddiqui in future if negotiations in this regard take place. I believe that if the Pakistani authorities somehow agree to do that, Khan will indeed be appreciated by the general Pakistani public. Khan said on Monday that the US would get good news in relation to the two hostages it wants Pakistan to release.

You might also like: Make or break time for Pakistan’s PML-N

Amid a looming economic meltdown with sharply falling dollar reserves, declining exports, a depreciating real effective exchange rate (-21% in fiscal year 2018-19 and 26% nominal depreciation in the same period), a declining participation rate, real output dropping to 3.3% in FY18/19, and foreign direct investment down (from $3.47 billion in FY17/18 to $1.73 billion in FY18/19), the State Bank of Pakistan has revised its inflation forecast for FY19/20 to 1-12%. So nothing is more important to Pakistan than US aid and investment.

Can’t trick the US

Khan did his best to prepare his report card to impress Trump before leaving for the US. The Counter Terrorism Department of Punjab arrested Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) chief Hafiz Saeed; Shireen Mazari, Khan’s human rights minister, deleted an anti-Trump tweet from her official Twitter account, in which she posted the link to a New Yorker article titled “A racist in the White House”; and the China-Pakistan Economic Community’s engine is all set to fail as neither Pakistan nor China is showing any interest in the projects the way they were initially – thanks to the Khan government.

After five months of closure due to the February 26 air strikes by India on Balakot, Pakistan, the country opened its airspace fully for civilian flights this week, and the Khan administration agreed to comply with the IMF’s structural conditionality, which also includes compliance with the Fiscal Responsibility and Debt Limitation Act (FRDLA) and undertakings by the Pakistani authorities to the Fund that it has received commitments from China, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to keep rolling over the debts the country owes to them until the extended fund facility expires. Unfortunately, this fiscal discipline runs counter to the principles of China’s debt-trap diplomacy and if successfully implemented, China’s dream of snatching Gwadar Port as it did Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port will be shattered very soon.

But Pakistan cannot trick the US into providing it with financial or diplomatic assistance with its unsustainable and unsubstantial actions to counter “externally focused militant groups and UN-designated terrorist organizations operating from its territory.” Times have changed. The FATF’s October deadline is already hanging over the almost crippled economy with an incompetent prime minister like a Sword of Damocles. The country could also be easily defeated on the diplomatic front; we have observed it in the recent past, too.

This article first appeared at the DailyO.

The writer is a journalist and economic and political analyst and columnist for Asia Times and various online and print media outlets. His analysis focuses on economic, political, social and cultural issues, especially those related to corruption, human rights violations, the global market economy, foreign policy, and environmental crises. Find him on Twitter @an_alisalman

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