Assessing Imran-Trump Summit

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Iqbal Khan
PAKISTAN-US relationship is historic, enduring
and wide-ranging—yet it has always had an un
derlying roller coaster signature tune that has an inbuilt undercutting as well as self-healing mechanism. Prime Minister Imran Khan visited the United States from 21 to 23 July. He held talks with US President Donald Trump, interacted with Congressional leaders and addressed a think tank. Imran and his team went to the White House with a lot of scepticism on the back of their minds, and returned with an outcome that Pakistan would be pretty glad with. The visit was not only watched closely by many Pakistanis back home but also in India and Afghanistan. Influential Indian lobby in Washington and some dissident Pakistanis who are always eager to play as spoilers. But they had been catered for during summit preparation by Pakistan’s Foreign Office.
Michael Kugelman, a senior associate working on South Asia at the Washington-based Wilson Centre, summed up Imran-Trump meeting in his following tweet: “At any rate, my main takeaway is that Trump’s comments here, for the most part, are exactly what Pakistan wanted to hear. An unintended PR win for Islamabad.” Imran Khan’s walk into the White House marked the culmination of hectic behind-the-scene diplomatic efforts spanning many months for arranging the summit. Reportedly, the Saudi Crown Prince was instrumental in persuading President Donald Trump to extend the invitation. From American perspective, main focus of the visit was Afghanistan with some cosmetic sweeteners for Pakistan; and from Pakistan’s perception, focus was on what all it could also achieve in the context of Pakistan-India perspective. Both America and Pakistan could have a euphoric sigh as both these perspectives have been addressed, even though notionally. Summit did serve some useful purposes beyond symbolics.
Some positivities were injected from both sides prior to the summit, these included American nod to IMF for rolling out US$ 6 billion facility and declaration of Balochistan Liberation as a terrorist outfit; Pakistan arrested Hafiz Saeed and held a well-managed elections for 16 Provincial Assembly seats in erstwhile FATA. Trump twittered to express joy over arrest of Hafiz Saeed: “After a ten-year search, the so-called “mastermind” of the Mumbai Terror attacks has been arrested in Pakistan. Great pressure has been exerted over the last two years to find him!” A host of issues were discussed by the two leaders; however, not much appeared formalised during the summit, and some of Trump’s commitments started falling apart soon after Imran Khan stepped out of White House. There was no joint communiqué; a small statement by Pakistan’s Foreign Office lacked substance and was round about; while the US State Department’s comments indicated that there was not even a symbolic shift in the longstanding US policy towards Pakistan and this region; mostly previously held US positions were re-emphasised.
A new conflict is fermenting in Pakistan’s neighbourhood as tension between Iran and the United States has escalated in the past few months. If the tensions escalate further, the entire region could get sucked into another black-hole category armed conflict. Pakistan is weary of a notorious combat zone along Pak-Afghan border and it could no longer afford another active combat zone along Pak-Iran border. Earlier Pakistan had made an offer to Iran that it could make an effort to cool down the things. Though the matter did not surface in the public domain, it would be naïve to assume that it was not discussed. And certainly the PM must have assured Trump of what all Pakistan could do to deescalate the situation as Pakistan understands the complexity of the US-Iranian relationship, and has the requisite leverage to contribute.
Prime Minister Imran told President Trump there was only one [non-military] solution for Afghanistan and that a peace deal with the Taliban was closer than it had ever been. He said he hoped in the coming days to be able to urge the Taliban to continue the talks. Pakistan had recently joined Russia, China and Afghanistan in urging the combatants to agree to a cease- fire. With this development India stood effectively elbowed out form Afghan peace process at least for the time being. And it also turned Prime Minster Narendra Modi’s dream of isolating Pakistan into a nightmare. Prime Minister briefed the US President about his vision of socio-economic development of Pakistan. He said that “peaceful neighbourhood” was a priority of Pakistan’s foreign policy. Just before the talks, Trump told reporters that he had seen a plan that would end the Afghanistan War in a week and a half.” I just don’t want to kill 10 million people. Does that make sense to you?” he added. Soon after, President Ashraf Ghani demanded of President Trump to clarify what he meant when he said he could have Afghanistan “wiped off the face of the earth”.
Trump stunned India by saying that Prime Minister Modi, during the recent G-20 summit in Osaka had asked him to mediate for reaching a solution on Kashmir conflict and he was ready for the role. However, soon after US State Department defanged Presidential wish on mediation by stating that Kashmir was a bilateral issue. India’s Ministry of External Affairs was quick to deny that Modi ever asked for a mediation on Kashmir. Despite tall claims, summit largely focused on Afghanistan. Summit served the purpose of taking forward an environment of trust and cooperation. The good news is that bilateral relations will improve. But the bad news is that there will be no fundamental structural change in the relationship and it will remain transactional. America will demand do more and maintain high pressure for it through IMF, FATF and financial support from other regional allies and institutions.
—The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

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