What was unexpected a few months ago just concluded with a considerable amount of media coverage and fanfare: the Pakistan prime minister’s visit to Washington.
Pakistan has been on the receiving end of strong criticisms by successive U.S. presidents. Donald Trump was no exception. He accused Islamabad of fleecing money from Washington by deceit, prompting Imran Khan, the very man who saw U.S. leadership's lavish praise on him last week, to respond in strong terms. Last year, the Trump administration also cut military aid to Pakistan by a significant amount. In this context, Khan’s meeting with Trump at the White House rendered the fraught bilateral relationship a much-needed resuscitation.
Khan and his entourage have plenty of reasons to feel euphoric. While Trump is known for being mercurial to send his opponents — domestic and foreign — off balance, very infrequently does he switch to a laudatory mode from being critical of a leader. For clues, one can look at Trump’s relationship with Germany’s Merkel or France’s Macron. Given this, Trump’s effusive words for Khan alone would be enough for Khan’s supporters to celebrate, which they did after the prime minister’s return to Islamabad.
However, it appears the trip, billed as an “official working visit” by the prime minister’s office, did more to boost Khan’s image as a leader than what it did for the bilateral relationship. In other words, Khan used this visit to woo domestic audiences. For instance, in order to appear more mindful of the public coffer, Khan took commercial flights and avoided posh hotels in D.C. that usually host foreign dignitaries. He also conducted public diplomacy in a bid to earn support for his administration by appearing at a top think tank and on Fox News, a Trump favorite.
Khan appealed to the Pakistani American community to have faith in him during an event at the Capitol One Arena. Many, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, considered his performance was akin to that of a “Rockstar.” Noteworthy is that Pompeo delivered stern words a few months ago when Pakistan was negotiating an IMF bailout to save its tanking economy.
If Pompeo’s reversal in rhetoric seemed to fit in line with his boss’s, how would one explain Brad Sherman, a vocal critic of Pakistan, to appear sympathetic to Islamabad’s concerns? As a matter of fact, Khan did not hear anything during his sojourn in Washington that he would find too sensitive for his ears. No one told him to his face that his country should do more — an understandably unpleasant experience shared by his predecessors.
Indeed, it seems the Trump administration might have struck some sort of a bipartisan consensus as to how to deal with Pakistan’s neophyte leader. The House Democrats were no less warm to Khan than was the White House. Perhaps Eric Swalwell’s goodwill gesture came to capture his colleagues’ reception of the visiting prime minister perfectly. He brought in a bat for Khan, who shepherded Pakistan to win the 1992 Cricket World Cup. If the bipartisan treatment was any indicator, Khan’s Washington visit proved to be a success for him.
But what did the United States get in return?
Exiting Afghanistan constitutes the Trump administration’s signature foreign policy promise. However, whether it will achieve this goal hinges upon the level of cooperation it gets from the Taliban that is now controlling or jockeying for control over half the Afghan territory. Pakistan pulled its strings so that the Taliban did not walk away from negotiations with the Afghan government and the United States. The impetus for the White House behind hosting Khan, therefore, stems from an effort to keep him encouraged in delivering what he promised on the Afghan Peace process.
To put it bluntly, the prospect for a multiparty accord on Afghanistan is all but elusive. But Washington realizes the likelihood would be even dimmer without the continued cooperation from Islamabad. While speaking about this issue, a hopeful president said, “I think Pakistan is going to help us out to extricate ourselves.”
The Trump administration hence killed two birds with one stone by playing host to Imran Khan. One, it heeded to what appears to be a perennial outcry among Pakistani leaderships, who, all too often, claim that they do not receive enough credits for what they have been doing on Washington’s behalf. And two, it did not cost much on Trump’s part — no explicit promise to provide money or military — to coax Pakistan into maintaining its support toward the achievement of a shared goal in Afghanistan.
Despite everything, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is not free from peril. Khan would need to rally his generals and intelligence chieftains behind him to maintain Pakistan’s constructive role in the Afghan peace talks. If history is any guide, Pakistan’s military establishments do not hesitate to abandon their civilian leaders to protect their interests.
Consequently, Khan’s demonstrated willingness to cooperate with the United States, while still important, is not the sole harbinger of a recalibrated relationship. Only time can tell us what precisely the chemistry between Khan and Trump did for their respective country. Until then, let’s remain cautiously optimistic for the best.
Arafat Kabir is a graduate student of political science at the University of Utah. He writes about South Asian politics, defense, and business with a special focus on Bangladesh. He is a contributor to Forbes Asia. His articles have also published in media outlets, including The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Diplomat, and The National Interest. He can be reached on Twitter at @ArafatKabirUpol. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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