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In US, Imran Khan & Bajwa want to replace suspicion with personal chemistry. It’s not easy

In a capitalist economy, business deals and investment depend on potential for profit, not goodwill between leaders. Khan should remember that.

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The late American diplomat Richard Holbrooke used to say that no senior American official ever had a bad meeting with his Pakistani counterparts. “The meeting is great, they agree with everything we say, and they promise every reasonable thing we can expect,” he once told me after a series of meetings in Islamabad. “Then, nothing happens until the next meeting, which is equally wonderful and warm and full of promise and the cycle repeats itself.”

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s working official visit to Washington is likely to be no different. The visit has been arranged at the urging of South Carolina Senator Lyndsey Graham, who believes that Khan and President Donald Trump are likely to share good chemistry.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is also reported to have facilitated the invitation for Khan from the White House.

Also read: Trump welcomes Imran Khan and makes his peace with Pakistan’s deception

Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi explained why the Pakistanis are excited by the mere opportunity of a meeting with an American President who famously declared just last year that the US had got nothing but “lies and deceit” from Pakistan.

By inviting Khan for a meeting, Trump has already come a long way from his New Year’s Day tweet of 1 January, 2018. At that time, he had said, “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”

Qureshi pointed out that “from isolation, we have moved toward invitation”. For Pakistan, the invitation is of itself an “acknowledgement of the inherent importance of the relationship for both sides”.

The Americans’ interest in the meeting is, of course, to seek greater cooperation of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in securing a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Washington is in deal-mode these days, and there is a presumption that there is a deal to be made with everyone –from Kim Jung Un of North Korea to the Afghan Taliban.

That states, leaders and terrorist groups might have beliefs and ideologies that preclude a deal is a fact of life that ‘Art of the Deal’-dominated Washington seems to ignore until the delay or failure in deal-making becomes apparent.

To convince President Trump that a deal with Pakistan is possible, army chief General Qamar Bajwa and ISI chief Lt General Faiz Hameed are accompanying Prime Minister Khan. That this shows Khan’s weakness is less relevant to the dealmakers than the prospect of talking directly to Pakistan’s generals, who might be able to deliver once a deal is made.

Also read: With Trump cosying up to Pakistan, India has reason to feel like it needs a new friend

Actions have already been initiated to generate news stories that might raise hopes that Pakistan is not only ready for a deal, but might even fulfil it this time around. The mastermind of several terrorist attacks in India, including the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, Hafiz Saeed has been arrested for the seventh time since 2001.

Madrasa and school curriculum reforms have been announced for the fifth time since 2001. And there has even been a suicide bombing Sunday in Pakistan’s northwest city of Dera Ismail Khan, proving Pakistan understands the cost inflicted by terrorism. Expect PM Khan to make that point vehemently, with Generals Bajwa and Hameed nodding in agreement, at the meeting in the White House.

But if Khan and General Bajwa are hoping to overcome a history of suspicion with personal chemistry, it won’t be that easy. The White House meeting will go well, just as General Pervez Musharraf’s meeting soon after 9/11 did. But this time, it is unlikely that the US will open its cheque book and move Pakistan from the column of ‘unreliable partners’ to ‘reliable allies’ right away.

The visit will be weak on substance, notwithstanding the symbolic value of a Pakistani prime minister and army chief showing up at the White House together to make new promises of counter-terrorism cooperation. On Afghanistan, the US would want Pakistan to get the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire and talks with the Kabul government, which is by no means an easy deliverable even for the mighty ISI.

There is no constituency in Washington that wants to restore aid to Pakistan and statements about expanding trade would just be statements. In a capitalist economy, business deals and investment depend on the potential for profit, not goodwill between leaders. Even if President Trump says he wants more US investment in Pakistan, it is unlikely that American businesses will rush to Pakistan amid economic uncertainty and potentially poor returns.

Also read: Imran Khan’s US visit is for home audience. Bajwa’s Army will do the real talking

But that won’t deter Khan and the military from raising hopes in Pakistan through the media, which will project the White House meeting as a ‘great success’ and ‘major breakthrough’. The Pakistan military believes that putting major opposition leaders in prison and gagging the media might become more palatable for Pakistanis with the prospect of the end of international isolation.

From the American point of view, this is an attempt to engage Pakistan at the highest level with the purpose of clarifying the rules of engagement in a transactional relationship. The army chief is coming and from the American point of view that makes it easy not to have to deal with the question of a civilian government turning around and saying that the army did not let us do what we promised.

But will another White House meeting change Pakistan’s behaviour in sponsoring Jihadi terrorist groups when many such meetings since 1989 and billions in aid have failed to secure such behavioural change since 1989? If President George H.W. Bush’s 1992 threat to declare Pakistan a state-sponsor of terrorism, delivered through Secretary of State James Baker, did not work, another great meeting is also unlikely to change Pakistan military’s worldview.

Only when the generals recognise that Pakistan has not really done well under their stewardship and allow honest debate about the military’s conduct as well as on Pakistan’s national purpose will there be real change in Pakistan. Until then, good meetings and promises will remain just that, whether they come from the generals themselves or from puppet civilians installed into office by them.

Husain Haqqani, director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C., was Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States from 2008-11. His books include ‘Pakistan Between Mosque and Military,’ ‘India v Pakistan: Why Can’t we be Friends’ and ‘Reimagining Pakistan.’ 

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  1. Another one-sided tale of Western perspective. Mr Haqani here has mentioned various limitations of Pakistan… but what he did not mention, lack of Pakistani voices in international corridors that represent Pakistan’s stakes. Yes, we’ve not done in Afghanistan, what USA wanted and we won’t, unless it serves our interests. If USA thought it can bluff through its was using our arms to destroy Taliban and then staging India to manipulate rest of Afghanistan…no one but its US thinkers are to be blamed for such nativity. Ironically, it scholar like Mr Haqani , who just keep reassuring USA that their strategy to get the things done from Islamabad are right. No sir, If USA want Pakistan to do things for them, they wont have to pay alone good money but they will have to act upon our rules of engagement , otherwise , spend another decade in expensive war and keep flattering yourself , for cutting Pakistan’s funding. Penny wise…dollar a …?

  2. Hussain Haqni lacks any credibilty. he was Pak ambassador in USA who intended to handover his countries nuclear stocks to America. the former Pak Army Chief Mirza Asalm Beigh said that Haqanis memo to US General in Afghanistan was in fact written in Delhi.

  3. 1. About a couple of days ago, this is what a news story said: “We’ve seen this happen in the past. And we have been looking for sustained and concrete steps, not just window dressing”. Actually the news story said that they were words of a senior US administration official in context of coming visit of PM of Pakistan to USA. My view is that this is an important observation of the unnamed US official, but my query is this: does it convey anything? 2. When in January, 2017 Mr. Donald Trump took over as President of United States of America, it was expected that he would act tough against Pakistan. But this did not happen, because, I suppose, there is a strong pro-Pakistan lobby in the US administration and the US Senate. 3. Despite reports about Pakistan government’s crackdown on Hafiz Saeed, chief of terror group Jamaat-ud-Dava (JuD), I believe not one independent foreign affairs expert in any democratic country would ever be convinced that illegal activities of even one terror group operating from Pakistani soil will be contained. 4. Entire democratic world knows that terror groups , especially Let, JuD, JeM and Pakistani Taliban operate freely from Pakistan and good many of them do so because Pakistan’s army & its intelligence wing, ISI, provide complete immunity to such terror groups. Is it not a fact that these terror outfits are freely used to create disturbances in India and elsewhere? 5. Now it is for President Donald Trump to reassure the entire democratic world that USA would indeed take positive and decisive steps to compel Pakistan to take stern measures against all terror groups. Let us see what happens in next few weeks.

  4. There is no place for personal chemistry in International Relations, least of all in dealings with a superpower. Sometimes two leaders feel comfortable in each other’s presence, occasionally one can hear the ice cubes tinkling in the glass, as with Obama and Netanyahu. The Americans need Pakistan and are willing to pay a price for its support to leave Afghanistan quickly, in time for the 2020 election. Bajwa, unlike General Raheel Shareef, is dying for an extension and is willing to shop abroad to get it. 2. The Pakistanis have both the gift of geography and an accomplished diplomatic corps. They will get a good deal for themselves from Washington.

    • It is a melting pot which is not defined by general observations like yours. The elephant in the room is the shadowy groups waiting to act and outside the diktat of any state agency. One incident and Pakistan could have the egg on its face. Watch this space just like you did with your shallow comments on general elections reflecting nothing but partial understanding and sermonising.

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