Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s US visit is being dubbed as a reset in the two countries’ much strained relations.
The visit was well-choreographed by the Pakistani civil and military bureaucrats, and partisans of Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) in the US. His address to the overseas Pakistanis at the Capital One arena, in Washington, D.C. was scripted to emulate the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2014 rally at the Madison Square Garden, New York. Geared to energise only his political base and not the Pakistani diaspora at large, it was an impressive show, put on with military precision.
The eventual icing on the cake was an unexpected – and untrue – remark by President Donald Trump about an imaginary offer to him by Modi to be the “mediator or arbitrator in the Kashmir” imbroglio. The remark flew in the face of 47 years of Indian diplomatic position since the Simla Agreement that the two countries must resolve the issue(s) bilaterally.
As expected, it was rejected by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs within the hour, but Trump had handed Khan and his army backers something to gloat about at home. The other, and even more repugnant and callous, comment by Trump was about wiping Afghanistan off the face of the earth “to end the war there”. The Afghan presidency immediately asked for an explanation for the outrageous, uncalled for tirade.
Trump’s desperation on Afghanistan
That these untruthful and vile comments were made in the presence of Khan, whose country is at loggerheads with both India and Afghanistan, smack not just of Trump’s ignorance – as if any proof were needed – but also of his desperation and singular focus to cut and run from Afghanistan. While the war in Afghanistan is presently not on the US domestic political radar, Trump wishes to put it up there to boast about ending it, in his re-election bid next year.
His narrow focus appears to be a withdrawal, after a hastily-reached agreement with the Taliban that allows for a face-saving lull between the US exit and resumption of the jihadi terror. The plan seems to be a replica of Richard Nixon’s so-called decent interval, which actually led to an indecently humiliating withdrawal from Vietnam.
The arrogant gaffes also marked the limits and shortcomings of Afghan and Indian diplomacy, especially when their interlocutor is a man who probably won’t be able to locate Kashmir on the map, let alone know the history of the conflict and the respective positions India and Pakistan have held. Trump does not realise – or doesn’t care – that the 10 million Afghans that he threatened to bomb are US allies. He is well-known to repeat whatever the last person might have spoken in his ear, and that person clearly wasn’t someone who understood the nuances of war or peace in South Asia.
Not preempting this was certainly a failure of the Afghan and Indian diplomatic outreach in D.C. India has been unduly coy about its interests in Afghanistan, while the Afghan diplomatic machinery in the US capital is perilously phlegmatic, leaving the field wide open to the adversaries.
While Imran Khan is somewhat of a maverick himself, his handlers appear to have coached him well. He remained extremely deferential to Trump, acted quite restrained and measured, and massaged the president’s ego enough to make him blurt out the mediation offer on Kashmir, which Modi had not sought in the first place.
Pandering to Trump’s self-aggrandising tendencies was a slick move and successfully extracted from him a statement, which is in sync with one of the pivots of Pakistani security establishment’s Kashmir policy: internationalise the Kashmir issue and try to regain the leverage lost in the Simla Agreement of 1972 and then the Lahore Declaration of 1999. In the grand scheme of things, this won’t be more than a flash in the pan and not move Indian diplomatic position an inch, but for now it did manage to make headlines in the subcontinent, though none in the US.
Pakistan’s growing economic woes
Why exactly was Khan, chaperoned by his benefactor – incumbent Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa – so terribly keen to first seek this US visit, purportedly through the brutal Saudi Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s aegis? After all, Khan has riled up crowds by posturing against the US, its war in Afghanistan and its pursuit of the Taliban inside Pakistan, for the past 15 years. What gives now?
The answer lies in Pakistan’s tanking economy, and more importantly, the pinch that the country’s oversized army is feeling because of that. Pakistan army’s Imran Khan project has virtually gone belly up, especially in case of the economy. Not even the PTI partisans who thronged Khan’s D.C. rally are buying into his voodoo economics. The country’s coffers were precariously depleted, consumer confidence at the lowest ebb, exports declining and the foreign direct investment negligible.
Pakistan borrowed a record $16 billion in the past year, of which $13.6 billion in international loans were taken out by the army-backed Khan government. China, Pakistan’s so-called all-weather friend, remained a stingy paymaster in the crunch, forcing the Khan government to beg the Arab sheikhdoms and kingdoms for oil credits and hard cash.
But despite the lifeline thrown by the Arabs, Pakistan was forced to go to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for the 22nd time in its history. In departure from its past, the army had to “voluntarily” freeze its budget – including salaries and pensions – which when adjusted for the rupee free fall against the dollar meant an effective decrease in defence spending.
With a faltering economy, combined with the imminent possibility of getting blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), Pakistan’s economic choices were extremely limited. Seeking a rapprochement with the US was inevitable and hence the Khan-Bajwa trip to Trump’s court.
Having said that, the Pakistani army establishment played its cards rather well and timed its supremely vulnerable position with Trump’s desperation in a way that has the potential to reap some financial rewards at home, and a mega bonus in Afghanistan. If the Pakistan army can persuade the Trump government to release some of the Coalition Support Funds that the US has withheld as a punitive measure, it would ease up the Pakistani junta a bit.
The jackpot, however, would be if, in a replay of the 1990s, the US decided to pack up and leave Afghanistan to Pakistan’s devices. This is exactly what French scholar Christophe Jaffrelot, citing his compatriot political scientist Jean-François Médard, had described as military or security-related form of clientelism, wherein an exchange of favours takes place between a patron and a client (state) that lack any common ground other than an immediate or short-term transactional goal. Pakistan and the US are used to such a transactional relationship since the 1950s, where Pakistan has offered its services in South Asia, in exchange for helping the US achieve its perceived tactical or strategic objectives.
A relationship that’s unlikely to last
The fundamental flaw with the US reviving a transactional relationship with Pakistan, specifically its army that has a chokehold on the country’s polity, is that while ostensibly achieving a short-term objective, it leaves many geopolitical sores festering and fulminating. But more than that, it erroneously accepts the cosmetic changes in the Pakistan army’s behaviour as course-correction.
For example,Trump wrongly and ineptly claiming that terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Tayyabba’s head honcho Hafiz Muhammad Saeed was arrested after a ten-year search, gives credence to the Pakistan army backers’ claim that they are going after the jihadists. The obvious fact is that Saeed has not just been living large in Pakistan, but leading prayers in the country’s largest cricket stadium in Lahore and conducting his organisational activities without any hinderance. That this was his ninth “arrest” speaks volumes about Saeed being the army’s most-favoured jihadist, who works hand-in-glove with his military masters.
The present arrest was undoubtedly showcased for the US consumption, with an eye on averting the FATF sanction and consolidating the IMF lending, respectively. The crux of the issue, however, is that transactional lifelines thrown to the Pakistan army and its political façades like Imran Khan, do absolutely nothing to induce change in their geopolitical game-plan, which in turn perpetuates horrific political and economic policies domestically. The biggest price of this disastrous status quo is paid by the Pakistani people, who continue to languish on the precarious rungs of the Human Development Index ladder.
Irony is that while Khan, serving as the fig leaf for his army backers during the US visit, pledged peace in Afghanistan and literally beseeched Trump to intercede with India over Kashmir, back home in Pakistan those politicians who actually sued for peace within the country and across the borders remain incarcerated.
Two former prime ministers, Mian Nawaz Sharif and his associate Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, are in prison over cooked-up allegations of graft. Two progressive Pashtun members of parliament Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar, who represent the districts adjoining Afghanistan and are outspoken critics of the Taliban and vociferous proponents of peace, are languishing in jail under fabricated charges of attacking the army post.
The Pakistani media is under the army boot and forced to censor and self-censor any criticism of the army and its policies. The press and tele-media are forced to black-out opposition rallies, while false charges are filed against the participants of those protests. Contrary to Khan’s flat-out lies about civic freedoms at home, his junta-propped government’s domestic policies are the hallmark of fascist regimes, which oppress the populace at home and pursue hegemonistic designs over neighbours.
In the event the potential revival of the transactional relationship between the US and Pakistan, especially its army, were to go through, it would fall on its face in due course of time, just like every previous such arrangement has. Clientelism can only deliver short-term gains for both sides, for it is based on tactical goals, not on congruence of vision and confluence of interests. The task may appear uphill, but history remains on the side of pro-democracy forces in Pakistan.