By Syeda Mamoona Rubab
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s upcoming visit to the United States will perhaps be one of his most important overseas trips since he took office nearly 11 months ago after the general elections.
Khan will begin his maiden official visit to Washington – a five-day trip – from July 20, in which he will get a one-on-one meeting with President Donald Trump. It will, in any case, be a meeting to look out for because of the many similarities in the personalities of these two leaders.
Khan’s visit, which is being touted by his foreign policy team as a major achievement on the external relations front in terms of the perpetually troubled bilateral ties, is unlikely to yield any major change in the relationship. It may, at best, give a new lease of life to the transactional relationship the two countries have long shared.
Khan, who capitalised on massive the anti-American sentiment in the country to build his political career, was expected to introduce a major shift in the government’s US policy once elected to office because US was believed to be conducting the relations in a manner that did not fulfil requirements of ties based on mutual respect and mutual interest. But that did not happen.
The PTI government after coming to office more or less continued with the same policy on all external relations, not just US, which its predecessors pursued. The continuity in policy on US ties was based on the pragmatic realisation that any major change in the conduct of relations may lead to challenges for the viability of the new government that is already facing a major economic crisis (for which it eventually had to turn to America’s Arab allies and more importantly, the IMF) and political instability in the country.
The US, meanwhile, has two mutually complementing interests in engaging with the new government – first a break with Pakistan, frayed relations notwithstanding, will undermine its regional interests; and second, Trump’s administration was then implementing a shift in its approach on the Afghan dispute by talking to the Taliban for which it needed Pakistan’s help.
The first major interaction between the two sides happened within weeks of the installation of PTI government when Mike Pompeo visited Islamabad to meet the new leadership in Islamabad. Despite all the negativity in ties that then preceded Pompeo’s trip, it resulted in an understanding that the two governments would attempt to make a fresh start.
Khan and Trump later had a Twitter exchange in November, when the US president tried to justify cancellation of military aid for Pakistan in January 2018 for its allegedly inadequate action on American terrorism concerns. Khan then shot back saying: “Now, we will do what is best for our people and our interests.” This was a minor episode and something that was expected given the volatile nature of Trump and Khan’s impulsivity.
Weeks later, Trump officially put in a request to the Pakistani government for help with engaging Taliban, which Pakistan instantly obliged. That set the stage for the meeting, which we will be seeing in about two weeks. Trump, in January this year, conveyed his desire for meeting Khan through Senator Lindsay Graham, member of the US Senate Armed Services Committee.
The meeting is taking place at a time when US–Taliban negotiations are at an advanced stage, although violence in Afghanistan is unrelenting. The seventh round of talks were continuing in Doha, when this article was being written, and a meeting between Taliban and other Afghan elements without any official representation from the Afghan government was scheduled for July 7-8. Pompeo had earlier indicated that a peace deal was possible by September 1.
“The agenda for the visit, and especially for any of Khan’s meetings with US officials, will revolve around Afghanistan. We can expect above all for Washington to press Khan to push the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire,” Michael Kugelman, South Asia senior associate at The Wilson Center said.
He categorically cautioned that the visit does not represent “a reset of the US-Pakistan relationship.”
“The visit reflects Washington’s view that Pakistan is a critical player in the Afghan peace process, and it amplifies how the US tends to view its relationship with Pakistan through the lens of Afghanistan. I don’t think the US has any intention of broadening the relationship with Pakistan beyond Afghan reconciliation at this point. Though to be sure we are seeing a better, more stable US-Pakistan relationship now, even if it is narrowly focused on the Afghanistan issue,” he added.
Ahead of the visit, Washington has conveyed a strong signal to Pakistan through designation of terrorist group Balochistan Liberation Army that if it (Islamabad) agrees to play ball with US then its security concerns too can be addressed.
No matter how this visit is conducted by both sides, the bottom line remains that Pakistan and US, to quote Kugelman, are “transactional partners, not natural allies.” He is right in his assessment that “there are very few strategic convergences between the two these days -only divergences and disconnects.”
The writer is a senior researcher at Islamabad Policy Institute. She can be reached at [email protected]