For an official visit, Imran Khan’s landing in Washington DC’s Dulles International Airport on Saturday was minus any fanfare. The only American official present was somebody from protocol, leaving the welcome ceremonies to Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and the resident Pakistani-American community.
So, it would appear that Islamabad remains in the U.S. diplomatic doghouse even as the State Department and the Pentagon lean on Prime Minister Imran Khan to deliver on peace in Afghanistan—a euphemism for bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table and ensuring some kind of a deal that could see the safe and speedy exit of U.S. forces from that country.
Clearly, Afghanistan is a priority for the U.S. and Pakistan can be expected to juggle all its diplomatic options to get the best deal for itself on a range of issues:
- Currently that includes no further pressures at the FATF (Financial Action Task Force) where Islamabad remains on the grey list, meaning it suffers from “structural deficiencies” when it comes to fighting international money laundering and terrorism financing. At all costs, Pakistan wants to avoid being further downgraded to the black list (along with Iran and North Korea), a development that would severely impact its ability to raise loans and grants and bring in investment. The U.S. by virtue of being a major financier of the FATF, enjoys enormous clout, therefore Pakistan’s anxiety.
- Related is Pakistan’s action against the laundry list of terrorist groups, some with state sponsorship, operating from its soil. The recent arrest of Lashkar-e-Toiba chief Hafiz Saeed is being touted by Pakistan as proof of its sincerity in tackling terrorism. But they have done this in the past only to quietly release him later.
- Terrorism in Kashmir has come down, infiltration across the Line of Control has also diminished considerably. Imran Khan can be expected to use this to get President Donald Trump to press India to reopen the suspended bilateral dialogue.
Could Trump bite? He could and then again he couldn’t. It’s very hard to say how Trump could move during his one-on-one with Imran Khan late on Tuesday. As Delhi-based Pakistan specialist Sushant Sareen wrote recently: “A lot hinges on the chemistry between the ‘selected’ prime minister and the elected president, both men with fragile egos and pushy about their agenda. If Trump pushes too hard and Imran pushes back, the entire thing could come crashing down.”
Which is probably why Indian diplomats suspect the prime mover in the talks will be Gen. Qamar Bajwa, the Pakistan army chief, assisted by ISI chief Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed. Here again whether Bajwa will take the lead during the official talks or stick to the back channels and quietly guide the flow is not clear. But make no mistake, the key man here is Gen. Bajwa.
India is expected to be in the Pakistani crosshairs and Bajwa or Imran Khan will do their best to paint New Delhi as the villain of South Asia. India will be castigated for its involvement in Afghanistan, its alleged support of Baloch terrorist groups (the U.S. designation of the Baloch Liberation Army as a specially designated global terrorist organisation will come in handy), its refusal to revive the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), alleged human rights violations in Kashmir and so on.
Trump could lend a ready ear and perhaps win some Pakistani brownie points in the bargain. As Sushant Sareen notes: “this would not come as a surprise given the U.S. proclivity over many years to buy whatever lemons Pakistan throws at them.”
Hopefully, Trump and his advisers will see through the Pakistani game and ensure Islamabad lives up to its international and regional obligations. But it all comes down to Trump: the trade spat with India appears to have been papered over at the recently concluded G-20 Summit in Osaka, Japan. But Trump’s transactional style of policy making with little or no reference to the larger context presents enormous problems, leaving only uncertainty in its wake.