Washington: President Donald Trump, who just over a year ago accused Pakistan of giving nothing but “lies and deceit”, is getting ready to welcome the country’s prime minister, Imran Khan, to the White House.
The main reason for Trump’s apparent change of heart is the peace process in Afghanistan and the Pakistan army’s deft management of opportunity and need. Rawalpindi delivered the Taliban to the table and its friends in Washington argued it was time to grant Pakistan at least one wish and allow the visit.
How the visit goes will depend on Trump’s mood on the morning of July 22. He probably doesn’t know that the Taliban’s chief negotiator, Sher Mohammad Stanekzai, has been talking big. Stanekzai recently said that the US was on “the verge of defeat” and its forces will quit Afghanistan “either of their own accord, or they will be forced out”.
That is just the kind of braggadocio that could spoil the atmosphere, but as things stand now a White House photo-op is a ‘win’ for Pakistan even if nothing of substance is achieved. The fact that a visit is taking place is important after Trump’s South Asia strategy had singled out Pakistan as a bad actor of malicious intent.
More importantly, the Pakistan army may well be on its way to “rehab” if it continues to play its cards right and if things don’t go south in Afghanistan. Thus far, the US desire to get out has given the Pakistan army ample room to manoeuvre.
So much so that the continuing Taliban attacks, which now target even children, elicit shockingly muted responses from Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy for Afghanistan, and one of the two men who pushed for Khan’s visit. The other was Senator Lindsey Graham, who has been talking up the Pakistan army’s alleged change of heart since last year.
It’s not surprising that a strong army contingent is accompanying Khan: Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa; chief of Inter-Services Intelligence Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed; and head of the propaganda department General Asif Ghafoor. Four ministers, including foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, will also be part of the large delegation.
From the Trump administration’s point of view, the visit is a nod of recognition for Pakistan’s help, but it is not an overwhelming vote of confidence.
If a framework agreement is not in place for Afghanistan by September 1 – a deadline set by secretary of state Mike Pompeo – and elections can’t be held on time, Khalilzad himself could be in trouble, to say nothing of Bajwa’s dreams of getting back in Washington’s good books.
White House officials have consistently said that Trump will not accept a “bad” deal and he meant business when he shut off the taps on US security assistance. More than $1 billion in US aid to Pakistan was suspended, putting all kinds of pressure on a country strapped for cash.
Such is the state of Pakistan’s economy, Khan has had to beg for bailouts from Saudi Arabia ($6 billion), Qatar ($3 billion), the United Arab Emirates ($2 billion), China (about $4 billion) and finally the International Monetary Fund ($6 billion) to avoid default.
“Something is seriously wrong with Pakistan’s management of its economy,” commented Aparna Pande of the Hudson Institute. They have gone to the IMF 23 times since 1947, but received only one loan in full because they failed to meet the conditions and the payments stopped, she added.
This time the conditions – said to be tougher than before – are front-loaded, which will make life even tougher for Khan. How long can you take from Rahim to pay Rabia? Even the Saudis have gone tough on their brother this time, besides the Chinese whose business model doesn’t include philanthropy.
Bajwa’s basic objective would be to persuade US officials to ease the pressure and restore the aid, especially the Foreign Military Financing or FMF – the gravy train the generals have travelled on for decades. FMF is real money that funds US military equipment and training for Pakistani officers.
The loss of spots in elite US military schools and being cut from coveted training and education programmes were a major reality check for the Pakistan army. Meanwhile, repairing the ageing US equipment, including the F-16s, has been challenging.
But Trump, the deal maker, is unlikely to relent before the Afghan peace process actually begins working. His re-election campaign would be weakened if he withdraws US troops based on vague and untested promises by the Taliban and Bajwa and the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates.
To make America “unsafe” again would be a terrible election slogan.
The Pentagon may not be in such a hurry to depart from Afghanistan either, even if it is willing to tolerate Bajwa and ignore Pakistan’s long history of double-dealing and using the Haqqani Network against US and Afghan forces.
General Mark Milley, Trump’s nominee to be the new chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told the Senate that it would be a “strategic mistake” to withdraw from Afghanistan too soon. Describing the US war in Afghanistan, he said, “It is slow, it’s painful, it’s hard… but I also think it’s necessary.”
Bajwa’s second objective is to try to plead his case against India. The Balakot strikes, whether successful or not, did shake Rawalpindi up. The Trump administration’s strong support for India’s right to self-defence was a shocker for the Pakistan army-ISI complex, according to Christine Fair, a Pakistan expert at Georgetown University.
Bajwa will likely remind the Americans – as Pakistanis always do – that a full-blown war would be inevitable next time around if India decided to repeat Balakot. He will forget to say what might spark Indian action – say, a terrorist attack from one of ISI’s proxies. He may hint darkly at his tactical nuclear weapons.
If it’s one thing that sells well in Washington, it is the fear of a terrorist-infested and near bankrupt country with nuclear weapons gone rogue. While Bajwa can’t change the India-US equation in any fundamental manner, he will ask for American help to push India towards talks in exchange for vague promises of action against terrorists.
With American and Russian blessings, the Pakistan army and ISI have already effectively shut India out of any meaningful role in Afghanistan – for now. But the game is far from over and if India wants a piece of the action, it will have to do more than complain from the sidelines.
As the Pakistani entourage – numbering more than 20 at last count – rolls into Washington, so will the Baloch, Sindhi, Muhajir and other minority groups the government has suppressed back home. They plan to protest outside the White House and outside the Capital One Arena where Khan is holding a community event.
His critics say he is trying to copy Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s playbook but he is unlikely to fill 20,000 seats at the famous venue. Jennifer Lopez, who is performing on July 17, surely will, they joked. Last heard only 4,000 people had registered for Khan’s event.
Khan has said he would stay at the Pakistan ambassador’s residence to cut costs but Pakistani sources say it is to avoid getting “served” summons in various cases. The rest of the delegation will, of course, stay at a hotel.
It may include Mrs Bajwa, who is expected to accompany her army chief husband, if for no other reason than to enjoy the US on his first and perhaps last “official” trip. Bajwa is to retire in November unless his American friends can be persuaded to express faith in his abilities and argue for an extension.
Senator Graham could be a potential advocate for Bajwa with the Pentagon. Graham has carved himself a spot in the presidential inner circle by appealing to Trump’s ego, winning frequent invitations to the Oval Office and even an offer to be ambassador to Pakistan, according to Bob Woodward’s latest book Fear about this White House.
But Graham has been all over the map on the question of Pakistan, just as he was on Trump whom he called unfit for office in 2016. Similarly, he called Pakistan “a schizophrenic ally” in 2012 and supported cutting off aid.
This January, however, after a trip to Pakistan, he came back singing Khan’s praises. He called Khan “an agent of change” and argued that the US should consider a “strategic” relationship with Pakistan instead of keeping it “transactional”.
Graham was hosted by the Pakistan army, and like countless US senators before him, believed the generals’ argument on Pakistan’s indispensability and for giving Khan a chance.
“With Prime Minister Khan, we have a unique opportunity to change our relationship,” he told a Pakistani channel during his trip. “He understands America and I think he and President Trump will hit it off very, very well.”
That remains to be seen and even Graham, with all his Southern charm and craftiness, can’t ensure anything beyond an audience with Trump.