Prime Minister Imran Khan is all set to meet the American President Mr. Donald Trump on July 22. This will be Premier’s maiden visit and first one-to-one interaction between the two sides since the new administrations have taken charge of their respective offices. Since his election, President Trump had been vocal of his reservations with Pakistan concerning Afghanistan and war against terrorism specifically. Earlier this year, Trump expressed his wanting “to have a great relationship with Pakistan, but they house the enemy, they take care of the enemy.” This wasn’t the first time. Prior to this expression, he while stating reasons for ending billion dollars annual aid for Pakistan; said the country didn’t do “a damn thing for us”. But over and over, we did hear him expressive of his desire to maintain “good relations” with Pakistan.
The pattern speaks of the compulsion the US feels for Pakistan. There is nothing which bounds Pakistan and the US together (especially when the relations have seen a dead-end in recent times) but Afghanistan. For now, Americans are satisfied with the role they have given India under their wider Indo-Pacific strategy. But Afghanistan is one area where the US especially President Trump is desperate to make an exit through a deal while it believes that Pakistan still exercise a level of control over certain factions and dynamics of Afghanistan. So, from one perspective, this continuous push and pull is natural, one-sided, need-based and issue-centric. Besides, the kind of role Pakistan plays in facilitating an American desired (as thought) outcome in Afghanistan will set the balance of reward and punishment for future course.
For Pakistan, positions to maneuver are limited but if handled tactfully diplomatically, can yield results. Our approach to conflict in Afghanistan besides a chaos in neighborhood does have an India-centric dimension. Afghanistan had been in chaos for long but it became a concern for us now given entities (our adversaries) have started taking interest in the chaos. And also, there are too many factions (who have started getting empowered) to handle now. Afghans see this focus of ours, incompatible with their question of independence and sovereignty. While much interpretations are drawn of Pakistan’s control over (warring) factions in Afghanistan, plain Afghan goodwill is what Pakistan now needs more than ever before. So for now, it is either you provide a solution or you provide a solution but nothing else.
The peace talks have reached another stage. Where once, there were distant prospects of any possible intra-Afghan interaction, sponsored by Qatar and Germany, talks are currently underway. Though, any major breakthrough is unlikely but despite that state passed where Afghan and regional/global stakeholders have talked basics, the simultaneous policy of Taliban to negotiate and fight at the same time and its subsequent acceptance in the US (hint: continuation of talks), does narrate the unusual tale of American compromise. Well, it was never thought/imagined.
I wonder if Pakistan’s stance over Indian aggression would get much traction in the White House but the Premier can make a case of insistence i.e. India adopting a change in course whereby both states can work for improved relations in future. Now that to happen especially in the presence of long-standing issues is a serious test case for Pakistan’s diplomacy.
Despite the bilateral relations seeing the lowest ebb, this interaction could be a new beginning. Being a symbol of change, Prime Minister has represented Pakistan internationally before, though in an entirely different domain but that too demanded strategy, calm of a kind and play. Similar is this case now. Prime Minister has work cut out for him but he can attribute this transactional relation, a new dimension. Whereby there is a need to secure Pakistan’s national interests out of diplomatic maneuvering, focus must be onto finding a middle ground for cooperation. The past practice of either being completely subservient or otherwise did damage.
None can challenge the global status of the US and Pakistan as a country with major potential to grow has to learn the art of ‘maintaining’ relations. The homework is expected to be done, policy input must be with the Premier and a thought must be given to the major challenge that what other particular dimension bilateral relations can take (if Afghanistan sees some sort of settlement) and the American administration also adhering to it.
The article was originally published in Daily Times on July 11, 2019
Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the writer and are not necessarily reflective of IPRI policy