A few days ago, Pakistani Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, announced that President Trump and Prime Minister Imran Khan will be meeting for the first time in about two weeks. So, one may wonder what might the meeting result in – will there be a reset in the US-Pak relationship? Should we expect great things to come off of the meeting? This week, I have decided to try and answer this question. In this, I think, we should begin by looking at the events that led up to meeting’s announcement.
The announcement came on the heels of US Office of Foreign Assets Control listing the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), a Baloch separatist group, as “Specially Designated Global Terrorist”. Pakistan had been pushing for the BLA to be declared a terrorist outfit for long, and the move was portrayed as a diplomatic victory for the country. However, a somewhat downplayed news of the same day as the BLA listing, was that Pakistani government had filed dozens of cases against the chief of Jamaat-ul-Dawa, Hafiz Saeed, and twelve other Jamaat leaders, under the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997 for terror financing and money laundering. Action against the Jamaat has been an outstanding American (and Indian! – let’s not forget) demand. So, both these events should be seen as linked, with one being a trade-off for the other.
If you roll a little backwards, you will see that the announcement also comes after an eponymously titled ‘Afghan Peace Conference’ that was hosted by Pakistan in Bhurban in the third week of June this year. The conference, addressed by Foreign Minister Qureshi, is said to have initiated the “Lahore Process” that seeks to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table and help end the Afghan war. Five days later, the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, came to Pakistan seeking support in opening a communication link between his government and the Taliban.
Previously, and relatedly, Foreign Minister Qureshi had been in the United Kingdom, where he met his British counterpart, Sajid Javid and ‘discussed security’, as per media reports. After the meeting, Qureshi is reported to have had a telephonic conversation with US Secretary of State, Michael Pompeo, in which he – and I am only using terms employed in media reports – ‘briefed’ Secretary Pompeo on ‘progress on the National Action Plan(against terrorism)’; ‘highlighted’ the steps Pakistan had taken to comply with Financial Action Task Force (FATF) action plan; and, ‘reaffirmed’Pakistan’s commitment to the Afghan peace process.
This builds on a flurry of activities going back several months, including a meeting between Foreign Minister Qureshi and Secretary Pompeo in October last year, and a visit to our foreign ministry in April by Alice Wells and Zalmay Khalilzad, the American point persons for our region.
Now, let me ask you this, what are the common threads that run through all the events that can be viewed as ‘run-up events’ to the upcoming Trump-Khan meeting? They are: 1) Afghan peace process, with special focus on bringing Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table; and, 2) Pakistani action against terrorism, with special focus on terror financing. Everything else either is in itself, or has been made into by the Americans, a factor of these two broad themes.
So, that tells you what really to expect from the Trump-Khan meeting later in July. The meeting will be focused on these two themes; it will focus on progress along these lines; and, progress on these will be reflected into everything else that the meeting can reasonably hope to come to. Now, one may ask, do we have any indication on howdiscussion on such subjects may go? To that, I believe, the answer is also yes.
As recently as on 13 June this year, Alice Wells, the US diplomat chiefly responsible for the ‘Af-Pak’ region, deposing before US House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee for Asia, the Pacific and Nonproliferation, stated that the US “recognize(s) that Pakistan has taken steps to encourage Taliban participation in (Afghan) peace negotiations, which has been important to the progress we have made thus far. (…) (However,) there is much more work to be done to achieve our ultimate goal of a peaceful Afghanistan free of terrorist groups.”
In other words, she offered Pakistan a ‘thapki’ for acting on the first of two main points, but delivered a very politerebuke for there not being enough progress on the second point – i.e. action against militant groups. Her boss, Secretary Pompeo, however, minced no words when he, just a day before Wells, termed Pakistan’s purported support for militant groups ‘unacceptable’ and encouraged Pakistan to ‘follow through on its pledges to take sustained and irreversible actions against all militant groups operating from within its territory’. Put simply, the US is happy Pakistan has facilitated the peace process and is influencing the Afghan Taliban, but the US is not happy with what has been done against ‘all militant groups’. Thus, we can see for sure that during the meeting, the US will look to pressure Pakistan further in acting against militant groups it feels are hostile to American regional interests.
We may ask now: What will the pressure look like? Good question. The answer to that goes back to 2017. That year, the then-new President Trump announced his ‘new South Asia’ strategy. As part of the strategy, President Trump took on three broad tactics. First, he launched a ‘war of words’ to bully Pakistan. He attacked Pakistani War on Terror cooperation over Twitter and sent his Vice President, Mike Pence, to Afghanistan from where he famously announced that ‘President Trump (had)put Pakistan on notice’. The ‘war of words’ has since continued, with President Trump tweeting that Pakistan had ‘not done a damn thing’ for America just last year, inviting a Twitter spat with Prime Minister Khan. Pakistan, later, announced that it was ‘reviewing its relationship with the United States’. Generally, this is viewed from a lover-angry-at-unrequited-loveperspective, but what this really did was to trigger a process of introspection within Pakistan. That was groundwork for what was to follow.
The above was quickly met with an in-turn three-pronged second tactic. The Trump administration first froze military aid and Coalition Support Funds disbursements to Pakistan, and then simply cancelled them. In October last year, Foreign Minister Qureshi had called upon the US to re-start its military aid program, but the call was cold shouldered. Then, last month, Alice Wells stated before the aforementioned US House subcommittee that the State Department had not requisitioned any funds for disbursement to Pakistan in its budget for its new fiscal year. Recently, we have learnt instead that money meant for Pakistan is now being spent on America’s southern border to keep Mexican immigrants out. Put simply, the aid idea is over – and ominously – at least for now. Next, the US launched a diplomatic offensive to squeeze Pakistan internationally. Pakistan was grey-listed on the FATF, and Jaish-e-Mohammad’s chief, Masood Azhar, and Hafiz Saeed were brought under renewed focus. Hafiz Saeed, we saw earlier, got cases opened against his person; Masood Azhar was designated a global terrorist by the United Nations; and, the pressure on the FATF front is for all to see. Clearly, the United States has demonstrated its diplomatic power and Pakistan has buckled.
As a third prong to the above, President Trump openly called upon India to take a greater role in peacebuilding in Afghanistan. What that did was to really incentivize Pakistan to increase its engagement with Afghanistan. If Pakistan was not going to get in on the Afghan game, India would and if that were to happen, Pakistan may find its entire backyard lost to its rival. Thus, re-engaging with Afghanistan – and this time with a view to forging a new, and preferably pro-Pakistan, peace in the country – was effectively turned into something of an existentialist question for Pakistan’s regional security. So, seen this way, whatever credit we may want to claim for the progress in Afghan peace process is, actually, a product of American arm-twisting. If you simply re-read this particular paragraph, you will see that Pakistan has been, in a way, browbeaten and is completely on the back-foot going into the Trump-Khan meeting.
Finally, as its third tactic, President Trump created a new formulation of the age-old carrot-and-stickidiom. The US relationship with Pakistan was reduced to a single security-centered dimension and everything other than the Afghan and terrorism themes, was cast singularly as the ‘carrot’. In successive meetings between American and Pakistani officials, this ‘carrot’ has also been defined, and the definition, in itself, is restricted to trade, investment and energy cooperation (poorly hidden intent here is tapping CASA-1000 and TAPI trans-regional energy mega-projects!). There is little mention, for example, of scientific collaboration or any number of things that any two countries can collaborate on. Conversely, the stick is what has been described in preceding paragraphs above plusthreats of dramatic escalation of US pressure. This has included, for example, threats of sanctioning specific individuals within the Pakistani miltablishment suspected of facilitatinganti-American activities.
So, going into the Trump-Khan meeting, Prime Minister Khan would, it is reasonable to assume, try to prioritize matters in an order reverse of how I have listed them. He would seek to expand the US-Pak relationship to include trade, investment and energy cooperation. He would attempt to lobby for re-commencement of American aid program. He would seek American cooperation on FATF white-listing. Perhaps, he would sing such a ballad as is written against the international diplomatic pressure Pakistan has been subjected to. Perhaps, displaying some imagination, he would attempt to reverse the international pressure tide by discussing other regional issues, such as Iran, and, for its eye-candy value, offer to mediate between the US and Iran. Indeed, Prime Minister Khan expressed intention to do so over a telephonic interview with a popular TV channel a few days ago.
Finally, he would come to the main point. He would seek laurels for Pakistani efforts on the Afghan front. He would peg everything to the inclusion of Afghan Taliban in the process and how Pakistan is making sure it happens. Beneath the Taliban peg, he would try to bury the American concerns about alleged support to militant groupsin the region. Additionally, on his mind would be to try and suggest to the American president that the growing Indian influence in Afghanistan ought to be rolled back. This, he would say, is crucial to ensuring regional peace and stability. Finally, he would attempt to play what many would christen his masterstroke that is he would bring up Kashmir and express concern over what India is doing there.
And what will the American president say and do in response to Prime Minister Khan’s, perhaps wordy, enunciations? Being an avid Twitter user, he would put it in pithy terms: ‘All that’s something we’re definitely looking into. You guys focus on fixing the Afghan mess and cutting ties with the militant organizations you harbor. If you do that, you’ll get some trade and maybe some aid. We will see. If you don’t do that, expect a hell a lot more pain.’
That is just under 230 characters and that is just about what we should expect from the upcoming Trump-Khan meeting. There may be an announcement or two, a pat-on-the-back, and some candy to munch on for the general public, broadly in the Afghanistan-Taliban dimension. We may get a little of this and a little of that in terms of ‘relaxation’of pressure, some pronouncements of expansion in ties (all contingent upon the Afghan-and-terror game) and some trade-related tidbits. It may be that whatever little we get will quickly be plastered across the country as a major foreign policy win by the Khan government. Generally, whatever we get will not be so much a product of our diplomatic ingenuity but rather a result of successful American diplomacy against us. Ultimately, in essence, we will come to exactly where this discussion began: Afghanistan and terrorism. That is what the US-Pakistan relationship has become and that is where this will remain for now.
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