Veni, Vidi, Vici (I came, I saw, I conquered) is how history has recorded Julius Caesar’s boastful description of himself after a decisive battle against Rome. Certainly, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is no Julius Caesar—albeit his detractors routinely accuse him of nurturing dictatorial traits—and his meeting with US President Donald Trump on July 22 wasn’t a battlefield encounter but a televised event in the White House. It was a civilised tete-a-tete during which the two transacted serious business and also indulged in friendly banter.
And, yet, the reception accorded to Imran, by his fawning fans and aficionados, upon his return from the Washington yatra was so effusive and overwhelming that he was embarrassed into quipping it made him feel as if he had won the Cricket World Cup! Two aspects of his interaction with Trump are at the core of Imran’s fan club being gung-ho about his ‘achievements’ vis-a- vis Trump.
One, is his forceful advocacy of the people of Kashmir and his emphatically beseeching Trump to intercede on their behalf with India. Jubilation in the Imran camp is over Trump responding to his plea with alacrity and saying it, unequivocally, on camera that now that it dawned on him how long the Kashmir dispute had lingered, he would be ready to act as a mediator between India and Pakistan if both sides asked him to help.
Imran complimented Trump by saying more than a billion people of the sub-continent would be grateful to him if he mediated.
The second plus-point on Imran’s Washington scorecard winning the hearts of his people is that unlike his predecessors in office, he didn’t have a begging bowl in his meeting with Trump and kept his head up with dignity. In a long time, it was a meeting on equal footing between a Pakistani leader and a US president.
Optics, indeed, have a focal importance of their own in this day and age when it comes to summit-level meetings of leaders. Imran was at his confident-best in his Oval Office appearance beside Trump. What a contrast those optics offered to millions of Pakistanis watching it live on television from the last meeting between a Pakistani leader, the discredited Nawaz Sharif, and a US President, Barack Obama, in that case. Nawaz sat nervously next to Obama and instead of talking to his face, fidgeted with scraps of notes and talking-points in his hands that he read from on camera.
Trump, on his part, was uncharacteristically mild too in meeting Imran. It was a totally different Trump from the combative visage and garrulous persona that he’s globally recognised for. The Pakistanis—including, perhaps, Imran himself—had a hard time in believing that it was the same Trump—who had time and again poured scorn on Pakistan for its alleged duplicity—paying rich tributes to Imran and his leadership of a country allied to the US.
However, optics may have deluded the Pakistanis into believing that what they saw on their television screen was the whole truth. It could be like one missing the forest for the tree. Caveats in inter-state relations and diplomacy that are staple to pundits can be easily lost on uneducated and half-informed minds.
On the festering Kashmir dispute, Trump’s generous offer of mediation has a not-to-be-missed caveat: he will do so if asked by both India and Pakistan. It’s a three-some game that could effectively be derailed by India nixing the offer of mediation and making the whole idea still-born. India has a history of insisting that Kashmir is a bilateral dispute with Pakistan and only the two should settle it, precluding any third-party role. Pakistan itself accepted that under the 1972 Shimla Agreement that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto signed with Indira Gandhi, much to the consternation of Pakistanis of today.
India has already kicked up a fuss with Washington by refuting Trump’s contention that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him, recently, to act as a mediator with Pakistan. As for the sensitive question of a relationship of two equals between Pakistan and the US, that, too, could be a figment of Pakistani imagination.
Pakistan may well be an atomic power but that doesn’t entitle it to a relationship of equals with a super power whose core interests far exceed Pakistan’s regional ambitions. Informed Pakistani minds are only too conscious of an unedifying history of Washington treating Pakistan like a client state. A long saga of roller-coaster ride in Pakistan-US relations is painful testimony of Washington nonchalantly downgrading its relationship with Pakistan to, at best, transactional.
Trump may have charmed Imran by being mealy-mouthed and all sweet-and -honey. Pakistan’s pivotal role in brokering a deal with the Taliban explains his ersatz camaraderie with Imran. But that could easily turn out to be a cameo role. A maverick and mercurial Trump wouldn’t take long to change his spots.
His cricket experience must have taught Imran that a game isn’t over until the last ball has been bowled. How Trump behaves once Pakistan has pulled his chestnut out of the Afghan fire will tell whether Imran won him over or was bowled over.
Karamatullah K Ghori
Former Pakistani diplomat