Imran Khan’s US visit is fast becoming the talk of the town in Washington. First was his rather embarrassing reception in an airport ‘people mover’ by an acting chief of protocol, and his own Embassy officials; then came the undoubted ‘high’ of seeing some 20,000 odd enthusiastic Pakistanis at the ‘Town Hall’ event, and thereafter the big bang joint presser with the President of the United States himself, where the Kashmir issue came unexpectedly into the front news, due to an offer by the president to mediate.
Khan followed up with an offer of prayers by ‘a billion people’ (from where?) if a solution could be found. By the time he reached the United States Institute of Peace for his last public event, he looked tired and twitchy. Clearly, the visit had taken its toll.
In evaluating the visit from an entirely impartial point of view, the first definite ‘victory’ for Islamabad was the entirely unexpected offer from the US president to mediate on Kashmir. That it was followed quickly by damage limitation exercises — with a clear statement from Republican Eliot L Engel, Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and a less clear statement from the US State Department (South Asia and Central Asia Affairs) — is unlikely to reduce the elation in Pakistan, with Khan seen as having ‘delivered’ on his visit.
A few wise heads will see the irony of such a victory. Pakistan’s economic, political and social mess, which is reaching alarming proportions has nothing to do with Kashmir. The mention of Kashmir doesn’t change that dangerous slide at all. The end effect of the Trump offer of mediation raised a storm in the Indian Parliament with the Opposition demanding that Prime Minister Narendra Modi explains his alleged request for mediation.
Modi’s past, present and future make him the last person to ever ask for mediation is generally known. But as of now, the gaffe in Washington means that a possible dialogue between India and Pakistan is further away than ever. So that Kashmir reference is not any kind of victory at all – rather the reverse.
Second, the visit did do much to improve the prime minister’s image. The ‘rock star’ welcome by the Pakistani Americans apparently soothed his pride, as he said at the event, wounded no doubt by the necessity of hearing a variety of veiled ‘requests’ (read demands) from various US government officials.
At the event, however, he repeated himself several times, seemed to lack coherence and made unsavoury jokes against his political opponents. He made up some ground at the United States Institute of Peace, where he spoke with becoming dignity, despite having to evade pertinent questions by Nancy Lindborg, President and CEO of the institution. Among these were the lack of press freedoms in Pakistan, and whether Pakistan was now actually willing to contribute to peace in Afghanistan. The response was a rambling dissertation on Afghanistan and that he would now talk to the Taliban on his return to the country.
The mask of the confident statesman slipped in a reference to Pakistan’s treatment of the entirely non-violent Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) that is gathering pace in Pakistan, and which the military is trying to end with its usual methods. A burst of anger, and then a quick evasion, with an ever longer description of his earlier opposition to military operations in the tribal areas, and the inevitable end result of rights violations – forgetting that in that case, he has no grounds whatsoever to criticise Indian ‘atrocities’ in Kashmir. But overall, his composure remained though there were telltale signs of nervousness in keeping rigorously to an unseen brief.
Third, there was no public demand by US interlocutors that Pakistan ‘do more’ in Afghanistan. That would have been certainly conveyed to army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, ISI chief Lt Gen Faiz Hameed and the DG (ISPR) Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, who seemed to accompany Khan, but were not seen either at the airport or anywhere else.
The readout of Khan’s meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was terse in the extreme and called for both “to advance shared priorities, including Pakistan’s significant role in supporting the Afghan peace process and counterterrorism…..including defeating terrorist organizations, which he hoped would form the basis of a reinvigorated partnership." Clearly, and this is evident even in the joint presser between Trump and Khan, there is a great deal of pressure on Islamabad to deliver, and quickly. Trump wants out of Afghanistan. The change is that they chose not to say it publicly. That’s something.
A fourth aspect relates to the other part of the Pompeo meeting readout which talked of an invigorated trade and investment relationship. Trump also talked enthusiastically of increasing trade by not just 20 percent but ‘quadruple it”. The hitch is that the emphasis in the US is likely to be on private money fronting such an initiative. Private companies will understandably be nervous about such a venture, given severe internal instability. However, given enough profits, there may be renewed interest. This promise of investment may be the most promising, and the best metric to assess the success of the visit in future.
The visit did see Pakistan getting its act together in hiring a lobbying firm after six years of no activity, a Pakistan Caucus Foundation was launched last year, and overall it is streamlining its effort. A resolution was tabled in the House in effusive praise for the prime minister after his meeting with members of the Caucus on the last day of his stay.
In the final assessment, Pakistan seems to have improved its standing somewhat, though this may have been eroded by a slighting reference to two highly able lady officers from the State Department and the NSC, by Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi during a briefing to the media. That was astonishing. On his return home, Imran Khan tweeted “I don’t feel like I’ve returned home from a foreign visit. I feel like I’ve returned having won the World Cup”. This might have seemed a bit over the top to many. The visit to Washington was a reward of sorts. Now it's payback time.
Updated Date: Jul 25, 2019 11:20:47 IST