Challenges born of PM’s visit to the US

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AFTER having reached from bad to worse, relationship between Pakistan and the US has re
bounded startlingly. After a series of icebreakers, meeting between PM Imran Khan and President Trump was the real turbocharger to propel it ultrasonically. In tandem, gun salute to COAS General Bajwa at Pentagon was another launch pad. The renewal of this sort in relations between the two is nothing new. Both have experienced it amply and more than once. In season, as estranged lovers, they seek happy reunion. Out of season, US breaks off as of a jilted lover. In December 1979, when Russian tanks rolled in Kabul, driven by need albeit exclusively, both hobnobbed with each other intensely but US washed its hands off love affair when the (erstwhile) Soviet Union withdrew while leaving Pakistan at lurch with an eventual long-drawn militancy and menace of drugs. Another round of forced reunion was thrust upon Pakistan following 9/11 upheaval. This time Pakistan had to suffer loss of 70,000 lives and more than $100 Billion in economy along with a charge of playing double game by no less than Trump himself. Not in so distant past, he charged Pakistan of lies and deceit while thinking of their leaders as fools.
Pushed by domestic and international considerations/compulsions, at cracking speed, US has found in Pakistan panacea of their all difficulties and problems in the region. Earlier Pakistan was a part of every problem, now it is a major part of solution more than anyone else with no Do More mantra attached. Trump has said, Pakistan has a power in region that other nations do not have with respect to Pakistan. Now tone is civilized, congenial and appreciable. The US has shown its readiness to improve ties with Pakistan in counter terrorism, defence, energy and trade with ultimate goals of creating conditions for a peaceful South Asia and enduring partnership. The Government of Imran Khan takes this a resounding diplomatic success. It has all the right to savour it so but in its euphoria, must not underestimate US’s expectations. These entail challenges and US also looks to be in hurry. It has shown its urgency when its spokesperson said that now is the time to build upon that meeting and to build upon those commitments. The expectations of US lie in realm of Afghanistan, Iran and BRI. The last one may be the make and break condition for an enduring partnership in the backdrop of emerging international rivalry between US and China.
Peace talks between US and Taliban have made significant strides with the help of Pakistan; however, path is strewn with formidable pitfalls. With more than 60% area of Afghanistan and gun in their hands and time on their side, Taliban may insist on bigger share in power sharing. They may also object to presence of US counter terrorism force or its military/intelligence bases on Afghan soil. Though US seems to extricate itself from Afghanistan without loss of face but probably it may not agree on Afghanistan minus its influence out rightly. These are likely to be most sticky points in course of peace talks with explosive possibilities and influence of Pakistan on Afghan Taliban may fall short to impress upon them to show flexibility for an end game, acceptable to all nevertheless, so far their attitude is very positive. Just after PM’s visit to US, their announcement to meet Imran Khan if invited coupled with their willingness to talk with Afghan Government auger well for sincerity of Pakistan towards peace in Afghanistan. It is very difficult to predict what would be the demands by US from Pakistan if peace talks fail to end Afghan conflict.
On Iran, Trump has said that US has geared up and is ready for absolute worst. It is heard that Pakistan could play role to de-escalate conflict in the Gulf because of its ties with Iran, KSA and other Gulf States. This may be overstated because tension in the Gulf is a result of wide range of complex reasons in conflict with each other and leverage of Pakistan is far outmatched. In association with US, Pakistan could get embroiled if conflict flares up to an extent of war. The US has already signalled for a cold war with China. The contention is BRI and CPEC is its main plank while giving an easy and short access to China for trade in ME and far beyond. This could make or mar prospects of enduring partnership of Pakistan with US. The CPEC is a game changer for Pakistan economically however, may remain a distant possibility because of Chinese inability to back it politically and militarily. This leaves Pakistan in a big dilemma with narrow margin of decision and would certainly test its diplomatic astuteness to the last. Frankly, China needs to show more pragmatism in this regard. Both Imran Khan and Trump have strong personalities but with different chemistries. Imran Khan is a simple and straightforward man with no crisis of intent and sincerity of purpose. Trump is mercurial, impure and impatient with notorious reputation of dumping people and countries summarily if they collide with his convenience. For both, this may be a difficult pursuit to find a satisfactory equation with each other for long term. In face of these challenges, road ahead may bebumpy/impassable. For Pakistan, viable course is to tread the path out of instant reset in mutual relationship cautiously.
— The writer, a retired Lt Col, is freelance columnist based in Islamabad.