Prime Minister Imran Khan is in the United States on his three-day official visit. The visit comes at a critical juncture and thus makes it the most important of the visits of the Pakistani premier in 2019. Here is why we think it matters that much for both United States and Pakistan.
The Visit is coming at a very critical juncture. It comes right at time when Pakistan is steering the Afghanistan Peace Process, on the request of the United States. It also comes at a time when the US-Pakistan relations are at a historic low, with US in the midst of imposing punitive measures on Pakistan. A recent development has been the US South Asian Policy that has discarded Pakistan altogether and listed India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives and Nepal as the South Asian allies. Imran Khan’s visit and one on one meeting with the US president Donald Trump, could re-invigorate a dying relationship that has been a game-changer for decades in the International Politics.
The goal of the visit is to reset Pakistan-US relationship that is at an all times low. The trust deficit between both the states has increased so much that it will take, probably more than Khan’s visit, to recover to a considerable extent. Both USA and Pakistan will look to repair, what is ostensibly broken, in the ties by addressing the key concern which is Afghanistan. Other matters include the US diplomatic and economic onslaught against Pakistan, particularly after Trump’s ascension to power. Historic Defence ties have also been revoked to a great extent and Pakistan would like USA to reconsider its decision in this visit.
Pakistan has won the confidence of both Afghan Government and Afghan Taliban after it successfully initiated a peace conference named Lahore Process between the two stake-holders. However, the important factor is the US request to Pakistan to steer the Afghan process after which Lahore Process was initiated. Pakistan brought Afghan Taliban on the table to talk with the US officials in direct negotiations. This was a major achievement as a 17 year long war has got both US government and the Taliban exhausted. Pakistan is also in direct contact with the Ashraf Ghani administration and the recent visit by the Afghan president to Pakistan right after Lahore Process in June speaks volumes of the importance of Pakistan’s role in the Afghanistan end-game.
An important factor is the US request to Pakistan to steer the Afghan process after which Lahore Process was initiated
Pakistan has been expecting USA to re-consider its Afghanistan policy, a desire which is on the verge of being fulfilled. After US Special Representative to Aghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad’s visit to Afghanistan and Pakistan, USA is well aware of the ground realities of Afghanistan and is keen to reach a political settlement. Khalilzad has advised Washington to collaborate with Pakistan, an advice that would matter a lot if Prime Minister Imran Khan’s meeting with President Donald Trump bears fruit and relations get reshaped.
Imran Khan’s visit will make progress in the direction by increasing confidence between Pakistan and USA now. USA is looking forward to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. Only a well-coordinated Pak-US Collaboration can secure an honourable and safe exit of the US troops from Afghanistan after a political settlement of the war.
The US concern is to keep Taliban in check. The question is, whether it can trust Pakistan? If not, what other options does it have?
Most of the other options have already been used against Pakistan and things have gone South. Punishing Islamabad is not helping Washington.US stopped Coalition Support Fund to Pakistan and started internationally isolating it by launching the attempt to grey-list the Islamic Republic in Financial Action Task Force (FATF).
With the head of Pakistan’s premiere Intelligence Agency present alongside his prime minister in USA, the message is clear, Pakistan is ready for intelligence cooperation with the United State. The ISI knows Afghanistan very well. Its intense collaboration with CIA in Operation Cyclone, the one that armed Afghan Mujahideen against Soviets, remains historic till date. The collaboration remained active after 2001 and the ISI arrested many key leaders of Al-Qaeda. The ISI and CIA can collaborate once more, this time in the Afghanistan end game but only when both develop a better understanding of each others’ security concerns. ISI wants to keep India away from the equation while the CIA wants assurance that Afghanistan does not go return to pre-2001.
US Punitive Measures against Pakistan
Imran Khan’s visit has the potential to convince USA why collaboration with Pakistan is more rational for White House.The US punitive measures have damaged Pakistan’s crumbling economy a lot. The Pakistani Prime Minister will be looking forward to entice US investors in Pakistan. If that happens, the US-Pakistan relationship can be re-invigorated.
The Trump Administration has already ceased the scheduled Coalition Support Fund to Pakistan which is to an extent, a setback to Pakistan. With Islamabad, now steering the peace process with US on board, the revoked Coalition Support Fund might reach Pakistan. If Pakistan guarantees USA on a political solution to Afghanistan problem which is safe and honourable for the United States, Coalition Support Fund will not be a big deal. Similar is the case with the military equipment that Pakistan seeks to buy from the United States.
The Big Picture
Pakistan and United States have had an unpredictable relationship with many ups and downs. The visit of the Pakistani prime-minister comes a time with the ties stand at a historic low. The central agenda, as mentioned above, will be Afghanistan, where Pakistan wants USA to trust it, keeping India sidelined in any matter. Washington on the other hand wants security assurance, particularly with growing influence of Afghan Taliban in the country. The dilemma is that Pakistan’s strategic partnership with China is on the rise with US tilted towards India. Can this tilt towards India be undone? Can Pakistan and USA embark on a strategic collaboration once again? Only the results of PM Khan’s visit will answer these questions.