Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan will be meeting US President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington on July 22. Trump has personally invited Imran to an Oval Office tete-a-tete. An invitation to visit Washington, officially, has long been a badge of honour for a Pakistani leader. Such is the gravitas attached to an invite from the US President that it’s almost regarded in the Pakistani political lexicon as a recognition of merit, if not a reward for good behaviour.
Interestingly, such a ‘reward’ from the White House has been conferred more munificently on Pakistan’s military rulers than its civilian ones. In over 70 years of relations with its oldest ally, only two Pakistani heads of state have been invited for ‘state’ visits. But both of these lucky Pakistani leaders happened to be in uniform: Field Marshal Ayub Khan and General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.
That may look odd on the face of it, but perfectly blends with the historical chemistry of Pakistan-US relations, which took off in the early 1950s in the infancy of the Cold War. President Eisenhower and his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles were overly impressed with the prowess and efficiency of the Pakistani military and saw in it the potential to stave off the communist onslaught.
That initial American faith in Pakistan’s capabilities was amply justified when the then Soviet Union invaded and occupied Afghanistan in 1979. The Americans saw in that Russian misadventure a godsend to break the back of their Cold War rival. The so-called ‘Afghan Jihad’ against the Russians triumphed because of Pakistan’s generous logistical support to American-financed resistance.
However, the allies fell apart and the cooperation went sour in the wake of George W Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan, in 2003. Pakistan-US relations have since been on a roller coaster.Pakistan blames Washington for bad faith and lack of trust. It points to the horrendous toll, in life and material losses, it has incurred because of its pivotal role in the unending ‘war against terror’.
Elaborating on its sacrifices and strategic help to Washington, Islamabad claims the US and its NATO allies could not have succeeded in their combat without General Pervez Musharraf, its then strongman, opening up Pakistani soil and military bases for the military operations.
The US, on its part, accuses Pakistan of sleeping with its enemies, the Taliban and other Afghan and Pakistan-based terrorist groups that have been the bane of its war against terror—a charge anathema to Pakistan. Islamabad faults successive US administrations, since George W Bush, of mutating the relationship of trust into a transactional relationship with all of its burden on Pakistan. Pakistani policy planners and pundits vehemently resent Washington asking Pakistan ‘to do more’.
With a maverick in the White House, ties with Pakistan plummeted to their nadir. Trump lambasted Pakistan for duplicity, cut off over a billion dollars in coalition-support funding to it, and claimed Pakistan had not done “a damn thing” for the US.That same temperamental Trump is now ready to roll out the red carpet for Imran Khan. Why, the pundits ask?
The answer is Afghanistan. In his bid for a second term in office, next year, Trump would covet nothing more than the end of America’s longest war as a plus point on his scorecard. On the campaign trail, Candidate Trump had blasted American involvement in Afghanistan. But once in office, he initially opted to beef up US military presence in the war-torn nation. However, that tack didn’t work and Washington had to sue for peace with the Taliban who still control more of Afghanistan than the western-supported Kabul regime.
Convinced that there was no alternative to talking to the Taliban, the Trump administration sought Pakistan’s help to jump-start the long-moribund Doha round of talks. Pakistan obliged, clearing many a deck of distrust. But there are still snags retarding progress. One is the Taliban demand for total US military withdrawal; the second is their refusal to talk to what’s to them the US ‘puppet’ government in Kabul.
Trump may have, reluctantly, concluded that Pakistan’s help was crucial in breaking this logjam. Imran has already been helpful. He hosted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Islamabad at the end of June to explore avenues to overcoming the Taliban resistance to direct talks with Kabul. This perspective should help highlight the importance of Imran’s upcoming meeting with Trump.
Pakistan may still have considerable clout with the Taliban but it’s debatable if it will be enough, especially with the Taliban having the upper hand on the ground, and Washington and its Kabul ally on the back foot. Pakistan has its own axe to grind with Trump. It grouses the ‘strategic partnership’ the US under Trump has been fostering with arch-rival India. Islamabad sees it as a threat to its territorial integrity and close camaraderie with China.
Pundits may have reservations about the success of Imran’s encounter with Trump. Both are mavericks of foreign policy. But then their out-of-the-box take on foreign relations may still be worth giving a serious try. Who knows; serendipity, notwithstanding Trump’s flippancy, might still have a tryst with them? Pundits, hold your horses.