WASHINGTON: The rise of Imran Khan, a former cricket star who is Pakistan’s likely next leader, could complicate new talks between American diplomats and the Taliban about ending the war in Afghanistan, officials said, fraying an already strained relationship between the nuclear-armed Islamic nation and the Trump administration, reported The New York Times.
Tensions between Pakistan and the United States were exacerbated in January when the Trump administration suspended nearly all American security aid to Islamabad.
But the relationship threatens to be further inflamed by Khan, who has voiced past support for the Taliban’s fight in the 17-year conflict in Afghanistan, calling it “justified”. He also has accused the United States of recklessness in its use of drone strikes on suspected extremists in Pakistan, signalling he wants them to stop.
Khan tempered his harsh anti-American language with an olive twig, if not a branch, in his victory speech last week.
“With the US, we want to have a mutually beneficial relationship,” Khan said. “Up until now, that has been one-way — the US thinks it gives us aid to fight their war.”
Recently, in a reversal of a longstanding policy, American diplomats held face-to-face talks with Taliban representatives in Qatar without Afghan government officials present. It was a significant shift in American strategy toward the Taliban in Afghanistan, and analysts said Khan’s victory could now set up Pakistan to play the role of spoiler in the peace process.
“The US doesn’t care much about Pakistan right now, but that issue will rise to the top,” said Shamila N Chaudhary, a former State Department and White House official who oversaw Pakistan issues during the Obama administration.
“Khan and the Pakistani military will want Pakistan to have a very strong role in shaping Afghanistan’s future,” Chaudhary said. “I don’t think the US is angling for Pakistan to have a strong role.”
Still, “the US needs Pakistan’s acquiescence, if not cooperation,” said Laurel Miller, a senior foreign policy expert at the RAND Corporation, who was a top State Department official with responsibility for Afghanistan and Pakistan in both the Obama and Trump administrations.
Administration officials and independent analysts voiced doubt that Khan will have much say in the issues that currently concern Washington about Pakistan: its extremist groups and steadily growing nuclear arsenal, as well as Afghanistan.
Those are the domain of Pakistan’s powerful military and intelligence agencies, which critics say influenced the elections in Khan’s favour. Khan is still trying to gather enough support to form a majority coalition in Parliament, but the Pakistani news media is already calling him the prime minister in waiting.
“His ascension will have little impact on US-Pakistani relations,” Miller said. “The situation in Afghanistan, the nuclear issues — those are tightly controlled by the military establishment.”
The State Department has responded tepidly to Khan’s apparent victory.
“The United States takes note of yesterday’s election results in Pakistan,” a State Department spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, said last week in a statement that condemned violence at polling stations and allegations of elections rigging.
Much of what kept these habitually sparring allies together over the past two decades is no longer a top priority, analysts said.
Al-Qaeda is not the threat it once was in the Pakistani tribal areas along the Afghanistan border. In each of the past three years, the United States has carried out fewer than 10 drone strikes in Pakistan, down from a high of 117 in 2010, according to the Foundation for Defence of Democracies’ Long War Journal.
At the same time, the number of American troops in Afghanistan has dropped to about 15,000 from more than 100,000 at the height of war more than a decade ago. The Pentagon relied on moving many of its war supplies through Pakistan but is much less dependent now.
Even before American military and intelligence operatives tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, American officials chided Pakistan’s military and intelligence agency as harbouring or turning a blind eye to militants.
“Both sides need each other much less than they did in the past two decades,” said Seth G. Jones, who heads the Transnational Threats Project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Advances in the relationship have been few under the Trump administration, which in January suspended as much as $1.3 billion in annual aid to Pakistan — an across-the-board freeze that was the most tangible sign yet of Washington’s frustration with the country’s refusal to crack down on terrorist networks operating there.
The decision came three days after President Trump complained on Twitter that Pakistan had “given us nothing but lies & deceit” and accused it of providing “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan”.
The aid suspension underscored how quickly ties with Pakistan deteriorated after Trump took office.
But it mirrored several previous rifts between the countries over Pakistan’s role as a sanctuary for extremist groups — a role that has poisoned Islamabad’s up-and-down relations with Washington since the terrorist attacks of September 2001.
Administration officials emphasised at the time that the freeze was temporary and could be lifted if Pakistan changed its behaviour.
That has not happened, despite repeated urging by top American officials that the Pakistani government cut off contact with militants and reassign intelligence agents with links to extremists — a goal that Republican and Democratic administrations have pursued for years with little success.
Much of the aid earmarked for Pakistan is now being allocated elsewhere, State Department officials said on Tuesday.
There have been a few recent bright spots in the relationship. Last September, with the help of American intelligence, Pakistani commandos rescued an American woman, Caitlan Coleman; Joshua Boyle, her Canadian husband; and their three children.
But analysts and diplomats say it is more likely that Khan will move Pakistan much closer to the expanding sphere of China, a neighbour that he has praised conspicuously as a role model and that Islamabad increasingly relies on for aid to shore up its weak economy.
Last week, Khan’s party tweeted in Chinese — apparently for the first time — about “strengthening and improving” ties with China.
Whether the relationship remains in traditional diplomatic and security channels or is elevated into Trump’s realm of personal diplomacy remains unclear.
“I think Trump and Imran Khan would get along fine if they get the chance,” said Vikram Singh, a former top State and Defence department official in the Obama administration who is a senior fellow at the Centre for American Progress, a liberal thinktank.
“Each country resents its ongoing dependence on the other,” Singh said, “but ultimately, the US and Pakistan need to find ways to cooperate despite deep mistrust.”