The meeting between Prime Minister Imran Khan and President Donald Trump today (July 22) at the White House is being viewed in Pakistan as an opportunity for resetting bilateral relations between the two countries that have suffered from massive mistrust since the advent of the current US President. He has cut off official US military and economic aid to Pakistan accusing Islamabad of playing a double game in Afghanistan. The hostile US bureaucracy has been passing the blame for its failures in Afghanistan to Pakistan on the flimsy ground that the so-called Haqqani network, presumably the fighting arm of the Afghan Taliban, operated from within the borders of Pakistan where it has been provided sanctuaries by the Pakistani Army from the safety of which the Haqqanis allegedly launch deadly attacks on the government troops and the US soldiers across the Durand Line.
However, lately things have taken a turn for the better between the US and Pakistan as the latter is being seen actively facilitating the talks between the US and Afghan Taliban in Qatar. The biggest contribution to the talks by Pakistan so far is said to be the release from Pakistani custody of Mullah Baradar, Taliban’s second-in-command after Mullah Umar. The Qatar talks are being led by Mullah Baradar on behalf of Taliban while Zalmay Khalilzad is leading the negotiations on behalf of the US. Pakistan has also been seen to have made sincere efforts to encourage the Afghan Taliban to talk to the Ashraf Ghani’s government in Kabul which the former has so far continued to refuse to do.
It seems President Trump has made up his mind to end the 18-year long war by withdrawing the residual US troops from Afghanistan, the one major precondition of the Taliban for agreeing to sit and talk peace. However, before removing the US boots completely from the war-ravaged country, Trump wants to ensure that a national government of consensus is established in Kabul bringing to an end the on-going bloodshed. He also wants to make the withdrawal appear more like a success of the US policy rather than its defeat at the hands of Afghan Taliban.
Since the invitation for talks had come from the White House and not from the State Department and since it is going to be a working visit with just one-off meeting between the two delegations and short one-on-one between the two leaders, many well informed quarters believe that it is going to be no more than a ‘Thank you, Pakistan’ meet. And if at all, most of the interactions would be focused on Afghanistan. Since the State Department does not appear to be an active participant in the talks, the hope that the opportunity could be used for resetting our bilateral relations with the US appearsto be rather misplaced.
As it is, some sources believe that in the first place the person instrumental in getting the invitation was Kushner, the son-in-law of President Trump. He is said to be very close to Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS), the Saudi Crown prince who is said to have persuaded Kushner to arrange an invitation from the White House.Ali Jehangir Siddiqui, the former Pakistani Ambassador to the US who is also a very good friend of President’s son-in-law is also said to have played a significant role in getting the invitation processed.
That is why a number of observers warn the delegation-led by the PM which includes the Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the Adviser on Commerce, Razzak Dawood, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Bajwa and the ISI Chief Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed to be very careful in their interactions.They want the Pakistan side to enter the talks with very clear, gettable objectives. Remember President Ayub Khan’s 1967 book, Friends Not Masters? A document of disillusionment and disappointment with a ‘friend’ who not only did not come to our aid in our 1965 war against India but had stopped all military and economic aid for going to war against our eastern neighbor with weapons the US gave us to defend ourselves against communist threat.
Next, by the time the decade of 1990s had ended Pakistan—the most allied ally of the US during the cold war— had become the most sanctioned country in the world after Libya. President George Bush had stopped all US military and economic aid to the country invoking the Pressler amendment in October 1990 charging Pakistan of crossing the nuclear red-line. In May 1998 President Bill Clinton imposed additional sanctions invoking the Glen amendment punishing Pakistan for the May 1998 nuclear tests. And the Kargil misadventure of 1999 had carried its own penalties. And in October 1999, the US imposed sanctions related to Musharraf’s military takeover.
At about the same time even the multilateral aid agencies led by the World Bank as well had effectively turned off for Pakistan their concessional assistance tap on the plea that the newly independent Eastern European countries as well as Central Asian countries needed the help of these aid agencies more than the countries like Pakistan. Japan perhaps was the only country out of all the members of the Paris Club that had continued to donate about $500 million annually to Pakistan during the period. On the face of it the 1990s in retrospect appear to be a lost decade in economic terms as the country had experienced a decade long shrinking of economic growth and the three unfinished IMF programs that the country had entered and exited in quick succession during this period further curtailed the growth in the name of the Fund imposed austerity.
Meanwhile, the debt to GDP ratio had escalated to a depressing 103 per cent. Because of the military take-over of October 1999 even the helping hand of the IMF was not available to Pakistan because under their respective laws both the UK and US representatives sitting on the Fund board were obliged to vote against the application of a country under military rule.
The second Afghan war that immediately followed the 9/11 just about saved Pakistan from complete disaster and we were back in the good books of the US and quickly became its non-Nato allies. But the advent of President Trump brought this short term honeymoon as well to an abrupt stop. This time we are looking at China not only for the immediate rescue but also see in the on- going $ 62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project a new avenue of escape from the US wrath.
But while enjoying the Chinese ‘largesse’ which also comes with a price tag we must keep in mind that we cannot live peaceably with tension-filled relations with the sole super power of the world. So, while negotiating with the other side in White House we could offer the US our willingness and cooperation to contribute further to peace in Afghanistan and the region.This can be achieved easily if the US were to help both Pakistan and Afghanistan to turn what had remained so far the Free Terror Area into Free Trade Area. The US could consider establishing Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (RoZs) straddling the Durand Line encouraging trilateral economic activity with Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US reaping the economic benefits on the lines of the trilateral economic activity between Jordan and Israel sponsored by the US on Jordan-Israel borders.
We could also suggest that the US facilitate an Indo-Pak commercial summit offering India access to Afghanistan and beyond to Central Asia through land route via Pakistan on the basis of give-and-take. We give the land route in return for India giving up its untenable claim on Kashmir where even after 72 years of occupation New Delhi is considered an alien entity.
— The writer is veteran journalist and a former editor based in Islamabad.