Imran Khan in Washington: Sidelined Pakistan will face tough questions on Taliban ceasefire, support to US against Iran

In what was a surprise move to many, Washington extended a long-awaited invitation to Prime Minister Imran Khan to visit the country. In a burst of parsimony, Khan left for the United States apparently on a commercial flight.

Pakistan is not really on the favourite list of countries this summer, as Taliban attacks continue in Afghanistan, taking the life of a highly decorated Sargent of the US Army among others. Yet it seems the State Department is ready to roll out the red carpet to an extent, with a White House lunch and meetings with several Congressmen, with probably Senator Lindsey Graham in the lead. After all, it was the Senator from South Carolina, who said he was ‘blown away’ by the Pakistani prime minister and his erudition, an assessment which is likely to amuse most Pakistanis who see him as naïve and to put it politely, somewhat confused.

On the Pakistani side, the obvious cast will be around – which includes the Army and the ISI chiefs, and probably the DG ISPR. Ministers dealing with agriculture, investment, and related fields will probably be present as well, to put a spin on the visit on projected US investment in Pakistan. Remember that Senator Graham had been pushing for a 'Free Trade Agreement' as part of what he hoped would be a shift to a more ‘strategic’ relationship. After all, after the pomp and show dies down, there has to be some ‘deliverable’ that Islamabad can show, to go back and claim a ‘new chapter’ of friendship.

 Imran Khan in Washington: Sidelined Pakistan will face tough questions on Taliban ceasefire, support to US against Iran

File image of Imran Khan and Donald Trump. AP

Looking at the visit through Washington’s eyes, the obvious thrust – as most commentators are saying – is to deliver on Afghanistan. US officials admit to some progress in support from Rawalpindi in delivering the Taliban to Doha. The Taliban themselves don’t seem to feel they’ve been ‘delivered’ to anyone. At the very first intra-Afghan dialogue the Taliban statement in Urdu differed widely with the perceptions of their hosts, and just about everyone else. It did not endorse a ceasefire or women’s rights, and continued to commit itself to its interpretation of the Sharia law.

Even stranger was their accusation that the US was actually supporting Daesh /IS fighters in Kunar, and then accusing Ghani of colluding with the US firm Blackwater – now called Academi - to fight the Taliban. This is not the language of peace, and it seems dangerously like the past. Pakistan will claim ‘inability’ to actually persuade the Taliban, even while it seeks to extract financial – and this time diplomatic – support and then pretty much continue as before.

This time around, however, they may not find the Americans quite so naïve, particularly in the Pentagon. That is where the actual negotiations will take place, while Imran is wined and dined elsewhere. Qamar Javed Bajwa and the new ISI chief Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed are likely to face a barrage of questions and examinations, all directed towards one thing — a ceasefire by the Taliban. The Army will, of course, expect that, given their decadal experience with negotiations on Afghanistan. Rawalpindi will be ready with a counter demand for resuming military training and provision of equipment. They might be successful on the first. The second will have to wait more concrete action.

Pakistanis are more than aware of their weaknesses during this visit, however, welcome it may be. The preparation for this has been intense. For weeks now, visiting Pakistani academics and officials have all come up with the plea that the US should again be its primary military and economic partner, with dark hints that this could be an ‘alternative’ for economic hustling by China. This is an argument that is likely to find some takers. Washington is almost openly contemptuous of Islamabad’s reverence for China and may be open to seeing what investment opportunities are available as a countervailing force.

Islamabad will of course not forsake Beijing at all. It will simply take whatever it can get in its present parlous state, and matters will continue as before, with some more warm hospitality to the visiting Congressmen. Washington should hold off on anything that is likely to ease this pressure, to in part, allow more space for those Pakistanis who have long been calling for an end to terrorist adventurism. It is true most of them are now in jail, but their pleas are beginning to gain traction as the effect of a financial squeeze are being felt on the ground.

The US is also looking for a Pakistan consensus on other issues as well. At official meetings, one issue that is likely to come up is that of contributing to US pressure on Iran. Since that demand is seconded by Saudi Arabia, who has provided billions in economic support, it is likely to carry weight. Such a policy is for Pakistan a hugely cleft stick, given that Teheran is about the only neighbour who is not completely at odds with Pakistan. Washington, however, has its own big sticks. Officials are likely to raise the issue of the unjustified arrest of two Pashtun lawmakers — Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar, both leaders of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement( PTM), a group which has been peaceably protesting against decades of arrests, detentions and humiliating treatment of the Pashtuns by the Pakistani Army. The PTM issue is likely to be a red rag to the bull that resides in most Pakistani officials with regard to any opposition to the army. Pakistani officially doesn’t even recognise that the problem — a very large one — exists at all.

The most potent issue that is ( thankfully) also being highlighted in US media is the absolute disbelief on the ground that Pakistan is doing anything at all about terrorism. The arrest of Hafeez Saeed just before the Washington visit has no takers, and there is a demand for not just ‘verifiable’ but also sustained action against terrorists. For the first time, there are actually talks in the media that the US demand that the ISI chief that purges his own institution of those who support terrorists and have done so for decades. Some justifiably incensed Americans are wondering why Pakistani generals — all of whom have their offspring in the US — are not being directly punished, and their riches (also in the US) sanctioned. In other words, everyone is tired of the Pakistanis and their subterfuges, but they still have to deal with them. No one envies the State Department their job.

The single message that has to go out to Pakistan’s prime minister and his entourage is that Islamabad has to begin to focus on bettering the lives of its own people — all 216.6 million of them- rather than holding it hostage for espousing causes elsewhere. Indeed Pakistan’s sympathy and support is a dangerous thing. In Kashmir, it has killed more than 44,000 people and in Afghanistan, the actual death toll is probably unknown in its entirety. What is consistently amazing to both US and any Pakistan watcher is why Islamabad doesn’t get this simple reality that its time for Pakistan to turn into a normal state, largely at peace with its neighbours, and its army limited to the defence of the country, and more importantly, sized for that role.

In a recent speech Bajwa reportedly complained that the army is in charge of everything and anything, including the conduct of the case against Kulbushan Jadhav. Given how that went, maybe Rawalpindi will be receptive to US advice that it slowly reduce its overweening role and let the civilians handle it. That will be a very long walk back to normalcy, for the Pakistani state if at all it decides to take that path. But first, the decision, and that’s admittedly remote.

Updated Date: Jul 21, 2019 15:32:25 IST