Rustam Shah Mohmand
Never before has a Washington visit by a Pakistani Chief Executive received such media attention. Never before has such hype been created on the eve of a summit between a Pakistani leader and the President of the United States.
To create an appropriate ambience for the ‘historic’ summit Islamabad made hectic preparations, including engaging lobbies to put across Pakistan’s narrative. Even Hafiz Saeed was arrested – for the umpteenth time in a servile move for appeasement, whereas he should not have, in the first place, been allowed to do what he has been doing for several years.
The meeting between Prime Minister Imran Khan and President Donald Trump was expected to break new ground in the somewhat cold relations between the two countries. President Trump had publicly castigated Pakistan for not aligning its policies with the core US regional interests despite having received massive assistance from Washington. He went on to accuse Pakistan of having cheated the US in the past.
But as unpredictable as he is, Mr Trump, in his meeting with the Pakistani Prime Minister at White House on 22nd July, lauded Pakistan’s role in resolving the conflict in Afghanistan. Not only did Trump praise the Pakistani nation calling it a “great people”, he also acknowledged that there is no military solution to the Afghan conflict and that he would be willing to mediate between India and Pakistan to help resolve the dispute over Kashmir. He hinted that he has been approached by India for such mediation.
But before the ink dried on his offer to mediate on Kashmir, the Indian side retorted promptly. An official spokesperson asserted that New Delhi or Prime Minister Narendra Modi have never asked the US to mediate between them and Islamabad for the settlement of the Kashmir dispute.
Indeed it has been the consistent, uninterrupted policy of India not to allow third-party mediation on the Kashmir issue. The position was reiterated in the Simla Agreement signed between the two countries in July 1972 following the secession of then East Pakistan. It now looks as if Trump’s remarks were off the cuff or he didn’t bother about what would be the implications of such observations being made publicly by a US President.
On the issue of resumption of the Coalition Support Fund (CSF), the US President did not hold any assurance. On the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), he did not offer any real intervention that could help Pakistan, even though there is hope that the US will support Pakistan after Islamabad began taking steps to firmly deal with the militant outfits based in the country.
On Afghanistan, there was one visible and positive sign: the two countries agree to pursue talks with the Taliban as the only way of ending the conflict. There are two reasons behind this positive change in the American perception. One, the insurgency is expanding and the Taliban are gaining ground. Two, the Taliban now speak from a position of strength as Russia, China and now Iran have established formal diplomatic ties with the movement. All these three countries are now convinced that only an inclusive government, of which the Taliban are an indispensable component, could take on the Islamic State (IS) group which is now threatening the stability of the three countries in areas where it finds support. This is worrying for the US as well, as it confronts the IS menace in its ally countries.
However, no fresh ground was broken between the US and Pakistan since the Taliban are already in contact with the US through talks in Doha – where significant progress has been made, according to sources.
On the issue of the release of Dr Afia Siddiqi in exchange for Dr Shakil Afridi, there could be some quid pro quo. But let it not be forgotten that the crime committed by Dr Afridi was many times bigger than the ‘offence’ of passing on funds to the Taliban by Dr Siddiqi. Dr Afridi sold Pakistan’s security, sovereignty and integrity for a few coins and helped a foreign country invade Pakistan and take away a prisoner. Nothing could be more treacherous.
There are a few takeaways from the meeting. The only solid gain is a change in attitude. How to sustain this change and how to translate it into tangible actions that would benefit both countries, is a challenge that Pakistani policymakers would have to confront.
The bigger challenge is how to balance a deep and mutually-productive relationship with China with the rollercoaster relations with the US. Under no circumstances would Islamabad adopt any policy that would cause a dent in this ever-growing partnership with China, especially now that work on CPEC projects has started. But Pakistan can and must pursue the goal of working closely with the US in areas like the economic and military contacts; access to US markets for Pakistani commodity exports; seeking convergence on policy options on Afghanistan; and deepening educational exchanges. Partnership in some areas with the US would not come at the expense of Pakistan’s relations with China. Such a policy must be pursued by taking Beijing into confidence.
On the whole, there would be no immediate breakthrough in relations that could be called a game changer. But a beginning has been made. Some doubts have been clarified and Islamabad’s position on some issues is now better understood in Washington.
In the coming weeks, as the Doha process proceeds and the outline of some agreement becomes known, the US would bank on Pakistan for keeping the Taliban on board. The US must, however, understand that Islamabad pressuring the Taliban to accept a ceasefire would not deliver. The Taliban would just not agree to a ceasefire unless it is accompanied by visible progress on the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. The Taliban would listen to Islamabad but the threshold would not be crossed. Pakistan can help in guiding the Taliban in the difficult negotiations on the setting up of an interim government, which is multi-ethnic and broad based, through the mechanism of the Loya Jirga – but that subject would be taken up in a future piece on Afghanistan. -Courtesy: The Express Tribune