Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, who once accused the US of ‘destroying Pakistan’ and blamed his country’s politicians for fighting American wars for money, will soon be in Washington DC. His objective will be to rekindle the warmth in the bilateral relationship that seems to have died since Donald Trump took oath as President of the US in 2016.
While opening channels of American money to Pakistan is a goal, it is certainly not the only business that the visitors hope to do. In any case, the real talking would begin after Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan leaves.
Satisfying the domestic audience
In his three-day visit beginning 21 July, Imran Khan will be accompanied by foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, trade and investment adviser Razzak Dawood, finance adviser Hafeez Pasha and a few others from his government. However, the most important members of the entourage will be Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and the two men close to him – the ISI Chief, Lt. General Faiz Hameed, and the head of the ISPR, Major General Asif Ghafoor, say sources.
The Prime Minister’s presence in the visiting team would primarily serve the purpose of satisfying the domestic audience. In his address to the diaspora on the first day of his visit, Imran Khan will repeat his promise to end corruption in Pakistan and hope to engage the affluent diaspora by projecting a new Pakistan that is in line with the military’s imagination. Khan has already started his political gimmickry by suggesting that he would stay at an inexpensive hotel paid for by his government or at the ambassador’s residence.
Notwithstanding the fact that his stay would be paid for by the host state – the US – and so Khan needn’t bother with the expenses, such positions would naturally please his constituency at home or the diaspora.
There is nothing noticeable in Imran Khan’s programme, except his meeting with the US President. Given how both Trump and Khan have similar egos and their brains work the same way, one expects the meeting to be uneventful.
Afghanistan is priority
Sources suggest that the military contingent and a couple of ministers will stay behind for more conversations.
Obviously, Afghanistan will be on top of the agenda. Pakistan received a pat from the US, China and Russia on 12 July for assisting in the Afghan peace process. The three major powers, which seem to have a consensus on peace in Afghanistan even at the cost of including the Taliban in the future political set-up in Kabul, welcomed Pakistan to the trilateral consultation that took place in Beijing on 10-11 July regarding the Afghan peace process.
Islamabad has all along argued in favour of including the Taliban in Afghanistan’s governance. The current situation is the closest Pakistan would get to its original idea of a favourable government in Kabul for which it had struggled since the days of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. The ISI had initially invested in Gulbadin Hikmatyar, but later switched in the 1990s to a more cohesive group, the Taliban, headed then by the one-eyed Mullah Omar. The Taliban were largely trained in Pakistani religious seminaries and their different factions continue to use Pakistan’s territory.
Pakistan’s visiting team, with Bajwa in attendance, understands it would have to cooperate with Washington to ensure an uneventful withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan – team Trump needs to keep its promise for any chance at the next presidential elections due in 2020. This is certainly the basic necessity to get the Americans to restart the foreign military funding for Pakistan. It would certainly not help repeating what Bajwa said during his visit to London in June this year – that the Quetta Shura does not exist in Pakistan and it’s only their families that live there.
CPEC and Pakistan’s offer for US
However, from Pakistan’s perspective, the upcoming US visit is far more significant than meets the eye. While progress in Afghanistan may be the excuse to restart the conversation, the fact is that this would be Qamar Bajwa and Imran Khan’s first visit to the US since taking over their respective roles.
The situation is very different from perhaps a year ago when relations between the two countries were very poor, with Donald Trump tweeting against Pakistan. It almost seemed that Washington was India’s to keep. The strategic circles in Pakistan were all too excited about its new partnership with China and Russia versus an Afghanistan-India-US strategic partnership.
Although the impression is that the financial squeeze brought Pakistan to its knees, a growing disenchantment with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) may also be behind the General’s eagerness to visit Washington. Some circles in Pakistan even believe that CPEC is on the verge of dying. Not that Rawalpindi is about to break its ‘deeper than the Arabian Sea and higher than the Himalayas’ relationship with Beijing, but it seems ready to put the prime real estate of Gwadar back on the market.
The army chief would want to capitalise on the tense Iran-US relations that make Chabahar a less likely option as a strategic link between South and Central Asia than Gwadar. Given that Bajwa has been signalling to the West for over six months that he has not closed his options regarding reworking his links with China versus the West, he could use the moment to offer Pakistan as a more reliable ally.
Bajwa and his men are on high alert to ensure they have not lost the US entirely to India. They are intently examining the economic disagreement between India and the US as a crucial opportunity to expand possibilities for Pakistan. If he stays back in the US capital after PM Imran Khan’s departure, General Bajwa would try to explore his options.
It will be foolhardy for anyone in Pakistan to imagine overtaking India in its relationship with the US. The Delhi-Washington bilateral linkage is at a different scale that has evolved over at least a couple of decades of intense intellectual investment from both sides. But then, Rawalpindi does not want to compete at that level. It can only make tactical choices. Right now, Pakistan doesn’t want to be out of the bilateral relations game with the US. It will continue to talk to China and Russia, but preferably being in the American circle. Pakistani military is aware that Washington will need to talk to it in the future – especially if the Iran front heats up.
The US nominee to the position of the Chairman of Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley recently said: “While we have suspended security assistance and paused major defence dialogues [to Pakistan], we need to maintain strong military-to-military ties based on our shared interests… .” This indicates an American readiness to re-engage with Pakistan, for which the terms will have to be drawn after the formal visit. The Trump administration is not likely to undertake major revision of its recently announced strategy on South Asia, in which Pakistan’s status was downgraded from an ally to a source of instability in the region.
However, successful talks could bring Pakistan back to a position where it can reopen the communication channels with the US military and benefit from training programmes. The possibility would be welcomed by Pakistan’s generals, who are happier sending their boys to the West instead of China, which has never attracted Pakistan’s ruling elite.
The costs involved
Getting back into the bilateral relationship game will have its costs for Bajwa, who may be asked to keep the jihadis on a tight leash. The generals will try to float the idea of strategic mainstreaming of the jihadis and not eliminating them entirely, which will probably be marketed to the US from the perspective of the latter’s future needs in the region. Bajwa would like to keep any action on India-targeting jihadis tied to the future of talks with Delhi via Washington regarding which he doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. Whether the jihad policy is abandoned entirely will depend a lot on the US, which is about to host a bunch of very needy guests.
While the military would ultimately want to be able to get weapons from the US, it would also be in conversation for fulfillment of some of its very urgent and immediate needs. For instance, just having lost one of the biggest arbitration cases in history worth nearly US$ 6 billion to the copper mining consortium, Tethyan Copper Company, the visitors would want Washington to help ensure that its aircraft flying into America or other parts of the West are not impounded, or face similar embarrassment, upon landing.
Moreover, the hosts will be asked to turn a blind eye to human rights issues and the gagging of media. Notwithstanding what will come out of it – hard cash or hardware – the US trip’s long-term implications for Pakistan’s domestic politics and regional stability cannot be discounted.
Author is research associate at the Centre for International Studies & Diplomacy (CISD) at SOAS, London and tweets as: @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.