It is rare that an American president tells a Pakistani leader exactly what he wants to hear, and specifically something that causes some serious heartburn among the country’s estranged neighbours. This is what happened during Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to the United States – which looks like a successful trip.
President Donald Trump, in his remarks to the media before the start of the meeting with Prime Minister Khan at the Oval Office, expressed his desire for increasing bilateral trade with Pakistan and sharing the fruits of economic development achieved by his country (with Pakistan). He hinted at possible resumption of aid for the country and even offered mediation between Pakistan and India over Kashmir. He also accepted an invitation to visit Islamabad at “an appropriate time.”
All this came amidst a kind of bonhomie unusual at a Pakistan–US meeting, and one that sharply contrasted the acrimony which had become hallmark of bilateral ties over the past decade and more so after the announcement of President Trump’s Afghanistan strategy in August 2017. Was it just Imran Khan’s charisma or his Naya Pakistan’s allure that made Washington look at Pakistan very differently? Some would think so, but this was not the case.
Instead, it was Trump administration’s desperation to get out of Afghanistan that compelled it to look friendly towards Pakistan. If one looks back at the build up to the visit, one would reach the same conclusion. Trump did not conceal his reasons for being nice to the Pakistani delegation. It was sort of a dream summit between Pakistani and US leaders.
“I’ll let you know that very quickly. I’ll let you know. I mean, I’m going to know soon. It’s not going to be like a long-term thing. I figure things out very quickly,” Trump said when asked if he was satisfied with Pakistan’s contribution towards Afghan peace
“I think Pakistan is going to help us out to extricate ourselves,” he told media persons. Then see what PM Khan said towards the conclusion of his visit: “I want to assure President Trump that Pakistan will do everything within its power to facilitate the Afghan peace process,” Khan tweeted. At the White House earlier, he said: “We hope that in the coming days we will be able to urge the Taliban to speak to the Afghan government and come to a settlement — a political solution.”
This leaves little doubt that US wants unequivocal assistance from Pakistan in converting the progress made so far in the US–Taliban talks, under a process facilitated by Islamabad, into a tangible deal. By getting it implemented, the US could finally “extricate” itself from the 18-year-long war.
What was offered to Pakistan in return? Trade, aid, and mediation over Kashmir: one can’t ignore the fact that while Trump has put all his cards on the table, Pakistan will have to earn it by delivering on the US goal of a political settlement in Afghanistan.
Here, I must point out Trump’s answer on a question on aid resumption: he first recalled the circumstances in which it was stopped and plainly said that it can be restored. “But all of that can come back, depending on what we work out. We’re working out things that are very important. We have a very — I consider this very important. We’re working out things that are very, very important,” he said. In other words, the president said: “get us the deal with Taliban and take the aid.” He said similar things about trade, when he mentioned the immense potential that exists. He went on to say that it, too, was linked to peace.
The revival of a high-level bilateral dialogue should have provided a good foundation for sustainable engagement. The two countries already have a forum under which foreign ministers regularly met to review ties and discuss ways for strengthening them, but it has been dysfunctional for the last four years. We did not hear anything about its restoration. Instead, the two sides agreed “to establish a mechanism to follow-up on the understandings reached,” according to Pakistan’s Foreign Office. This is definitely not a substitute for a regular high level dialogue.
The two sides also did not issue a joint statement to reflect common points on which they agreed to move forward.
Trump acknowledged that Pakistan was helping achieving peace in Afghanistan and had the capacity to do more. However, at the same time he looked cautious, if not circumspect. “I’ll let you know that very quickly. I’ll let you know. I mean, I’m going to know soon. It’s not going to be like a long-term thing. I figure things out very quickly,” he said in response to a question if he was satisfied with Pakistani contribution towards Afghan peace.
In theory, things look set for some fruitful cooperation because it has been Pakistan’s long-held position that peace in Afghanistan can come through a political settlement, and that there cannot be a military solution. The Americans, after losing thousands of soldiers and nearly one and half trillion dollars in Afghanistan, have also come around and are ready for a deal.
Yet, as they say, there are many a slip between the cup and the lip; peace in Afghanistan is not going to be as simple as it appears. First, the war economy will be the biggest impediment to peace. Second, the current political situation in Afghanistan is too tenuous for any reasonable confidence that a power-sharing formula among the Afghans will hold. The fear is that if things in Afghanistan do not go the way Trump wants, the “warm and gracious hospitality” that Khan enjoyed during his visit to the White House could evaporate fast. One can only hope that PM Khan candidly cautioned President Trump about the potential challenges that they could face.
The writer is a senior researcher at Islamabad Policy Institute. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org