Imran Khan’s successful Washington DC yatra

  • The signs were all good

After four years of frosty relations, the ice was finally broken when Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan met US President Donald Trump at the White House. President Trump’s abrasive attitude had rubbed Imran Khan up the wrong way when he had accused Pakistan of duplicity, being part of the US-led alliance in Afghanistan while furtively supporting the Taliban. Imran had been equally vitriolic in his response, which only aggravated the deterioration in ties.

Both the USA and Pakistan have been strategic partners, but their relationship has been likened to a roller coaster ride with numerous ups and downs. According to reliable sources, Imran had requested Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman to use his good offices to mediate. In January 2019, US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who is also the head of the US Senate Judiciary Committee and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and has been the most vocal and active supporter of refreshing US-Pakistan bilateral ties in the interest of regional peace and security, visited Pakistan. He was so fascinated by Imran’s narrative of his development plans and agenda for alleviation of poverty, eradication of corruption and instituting peace in the region that he insisted that he present his vision face to face to Donald Trump. Senator Lindsey Graham, who is Trump’s golf partner, possibly came through and the Saudi Crown Prince’s efforts also bore fruit.

The low ebb of Pak-US ties has been stemmed but it will take a herculean effort to bring it back to an even keel. A good beginning has been made, and it now remains to build on the foundation laid

Trump’s warm hospitality in welcoming Imran to the White House brought out the best in him. The passionate and eloquent presentation of Pakistan’s narrative regarding its unprecedented success in the War on Terror, the strategies being implemented to make Pakistan free of terror, corruption and extremism and a safe haven for foreign direct investment, ignited the business-minded Trump’s interest. The US President was gracious and generous in showering praise on the Pakistani Prime Minister. The 28,000 members of the Pakistani Diaspora present at the Capital One Arena on Sunday to greet their popular leader must have made an impression on Trump. In an unprecedented gesture, the US President confided that Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, had asked during his meeting with him to mediate or arbitrate in resolving the Kashmir issue. Imran was quick to grasp the opportunity and responded that if Trump resolved the contentious issue, billions of residents of the region will pray for him out of gratitude. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs was quick to reject the notion that Modi had sought mediation in the Kashmir issue, and the US State Department too clarified that the US can facilitate dialogue between the South Asian neighbours but not arbitrate. Nevertheless, the fact that the burning Kashmir issue was brought up and has been forcefully discussed in the international media is an achievement for Pakistan.

The matter of former CIA operative Dr Shakil Afridi was brought up in an interview of the Pakistani Prime Minister with Fox TV. Imran Khan did not hedge the issue but stated that Dr Shakil Afridi’s status was that of a spy; he has been tried and convicted by the law, however, a consideration can be made to swap him for Dr. Afia Siddiqui, a Pakistani incarcerated in the USA.

As a curtain raiser to Imran’s historic visit, the ground had been softened by Gen Mark Milley (President Donald Trump’s nominee to chair the Joint Chiefs of Staff), who had praised Pakistan, stating that it had made positive contributions in the Afghan reconciliation process, as he underscored the need to maintain strong military ties with Islamabad. The CJSC-designate also mentioned that while the USA has suspended security assistance and paused major defence dialogues. General Milley recommended that there is a need to maintain strong military-to-military ties based on shared interests. The General’s frank views were a good development just ahead of Imran’s meeting with Trump. General Milley was clear in reiterating that for the stability of the South Asia region, relations between Pakistan and the USA had to be cordial, as Pakistan had played a key role in Afghan reconciliation. The Trump Administration has admitted Pakistan’s positive contributions in support of Afghan reconciliation.

General Milley has also served in Afghanistan and said that pulling US forces out from Afghanistan would be a strategic mistake. There is no doubt that Pakistan has been a key US partner in achieving US interests in this region, starting from the Afghan-USSR war. This new start is a good sign for the prosperity and stability of this region.

By having the Chief of Army Staff and the Director General of ISI as part of the Prime Minister’s small entourage, comprising the Foreign Minister, the Ports and Shipping Minister, the PM’s Finance and Commerc Advisors, has been fruitful. Each has met his US counterpart and discussed bilateral arrangements to seek better ties. The COAS was extended unprecedented protocol, including a 21-gun-salute, on his visit to the Pentagon and held meaningful dialogues with his US counterparts.

Since Imran was not encumbered with any personal agenda, nor was he seeking any self-aggrandizement, he was dynamic in presenting Pakistan’s case strongly. For the first time, a Pakistani leader pleaded the case of the Indian suppression of the rights of the Kashmiris. It bore immediate fruit with the US President’s offer of mediation although the Indian External Affairs Ministry and media have gone into a tailspin to claim that Narendra Modi never asked Donald Trump for mediation in the Kashmir imbroglio. Is India’s diplomacy accusing President Trump of telling lies?

Imran touched a sympathetic cord with the US President when he mentioned the corrupt leadership in Pakistan being brought to the book. Spontaneously Trump not only appreciated the move but volunteered to canvass with Imran to rid the country of corruption.

The Pakistani Prime Minister brought mirth when he mentioned the hostile attitude of a section of the free and independent Pakistani media to which Trump retorted that the Pakistani media must not be as hostile as sections of the US Press had been towards him.

Pakistan’s offer to help bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiation table was welcomed. Pakistan is a stakeholder in Afghan peace. It was heartening that after decades of the “Do More” mantra from various US Presidents, including Trump, Imran was praised for making tremendous contributions to restore peace in Afghanistan and enable the USA to withdraw its forces.

The proposal by Imran to help mediate in the US-Iranian showdown was also welcomed and raised Pakistan’s esteem. He spelt out the dangers of a US-Iranian conflict which would have a spill-over into Pakistan. Imran’s initiative in opening the Kartarpur Corridor for the devout Sikh pilgrims has already been appreciated by Donald Trump and won accolades.

The low ebb of Pak-US ties has been stemmed but it will take a herculean effort to bring it back to an even keel. A good beginning has been made, and it now remains to build on the foundation laid and endeavour to reach higher levels of cooperation in the social, agriculture, trade commerce, education and defence sectors. Imran has already set an example of austerity by limiting the size of his delegation, traveling by a commercial airline and residing at the Pakistan Embassy. Such healthy traditions must be respected and continued.