Turning over a new leaf in Pak-US relations

Daily: Future Directions International
Date: 31.07.19

Background

On his three-day visit from 20 to 22 July 2019, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan visited
the United States one year after taking office. His meeting with US President Donald Trump
was intended to reset the two countries’ strained relationship.

Comment

On 22 July, at the White House, President Trump gave a forthright account of his thoughts,
which can be summarised in five main points. First, compared to Afghanistan’s other
neighbours, Pakistan has the most influence over Afghanistan’s internal affairs. Second,
Pakistan was disrespectful and dishonest towards the US to the extent that it had resorted
to subverting US efforts in Afghanistan despite receiving billions of dollars in aid. Third, in
the past, Pakistan worked with a US president who made Pakistan inured to some
undesirable habits, but in 2018, when President Trump stopped a US$1.3 billion ($1.88
billion) dollars aid package, Pakistan came to terms with the US. Fourth, he could finish the
war in Afghanistan in just one week by bombing Afghanistan off the face of the earth, but
he was considerate of Afghanistan’s ten million citizens. Fifth, he noted that he could help
Khan to win the next general election.

The meeting was meant to reset bilateral ties that had been strained, primarily by the post-
9/11 conflict ravaging Afghanistan and exacerbated by searing tweets between the two
leaders since mid-2017. In September 2018, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited
Islamabad and hinted at resetting bilateral ties.

The influence that Pakistan enjoys in Afghanistan’s internal affairs owing to their shared
ethnic Pashtun factor has become Islamabad’s bane. On 25 May 1997, when Pakistan
(navigating Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates) recognised the Taliban government in
Afghanistan, the decision was announced by Foreign Minister Gohar Ayub Khan, who did
not obtain parliamentary approval to do so or even then-Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif’s.
Civil-military tensions surfaced in its wake. Pakistan’s Parliament disowns the
consequences of any decision that it does not take. The same occurred with the fall out of
the decision to recognise the Taliban regime. The post-9/11 War on Terror could secure
the ownership by the parliament only when the Swat Valley fell to the Pakistani version of
the Taliban in late 2007. Pakistan’s active participation in the war started thereafter. The
next problem was the allegation that Pakistan’s military was selective in its actions against
the Pakistani Taliban and not against Afghan Taliban who were effortlessly crossing over
the Pak-Afghan border and persistently sabotaging peace in Kabul. Parliament could not
offer a solution to that issue.

After taking office in January 2017, President Trump showed his intent when, in April 2017,
the US dropped its most powerful conventional bomb, the mother of all bombs, on
Afghanistan to remind Kabul’s neighbours, especially Pakistan, the Taliban and others
fighting against the US forces, of Washington’s capabilities. More than the ramifications of
any bomb, Pakistan felt the effects of indolence when its economy took a nosedive in
August 2018, soon after Khan’s party was elected to govern Islamabad. Khan took a year
to fathom the gravity of Pakistan’s internal challenges and the significance of being helpful
to the US in Afghanistan.

Over that year, spearheaded by the military, Khan exploited the aid and loans provided by
China and several Arab countries but, to Pakistan’s dismay, none could bail it out. Similarly,
despite knocking at the loan-giving door of the International Monetary Fund in May 2019,
the economic conditions did not improve and the plunge of Pakistan’s currency against the
US dollar could not be halted. The US was the last resort and its turn came next. The
displeasure – both implicit and explicit – that Khan faced during his meeting with Trump was
a reminder that Pakistan had to toe the US line. Washington demanded that Pakistan
persuade the Afghan Taliban, with which Pakistan enjoys influence, to enter into
negotiations with the Kabul regime – an intra-Afghan dialogue – to pave the way for letting
the US forces begin their withdrawal from Afghanistan, a major Trump campaign promise.

In a bid to circumvent any negotiation loop, Khan was accompanied by Chief of Armed Staff
General Qamar Javed Bajwa and Chief of Inter-Services Intelligence, Lieutenant-General
Faiz Hameed. The duo was on hand to offer guarantees to allay the suspicions of US
authorities about Pakistan’s commitment. In return, Trump implicitly assured Khan that he
would restore US aid to help Khan stabilise Pakistan’s economy and, consequently, win the
next general election, or at least finish the five-year ruling term smoothly. Although the US
has not restored the aid as yet, how Khan will respond to Trump’s offer is yet to be seen.

Back to columns in 2019