The late American diplomat Richard Holbrooke used to say that no senior American official ever had a bad meeting with his Pakistani counterparts. “The meeting is great, they agree with everything we say, and they promise every reasonable thing we can expect,” he once told me after a series of meetings in Islamabad. “Then, nothing happens until the next meeting, which is equally wonderful and warm and full of promise and the cycle repeats itself.”
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s working official visit to Washington is likely to be no different. The visit has been arranged at the urging of South Carolina Senator Lyndsey Graham, who believes that Khan and President Donald Trump are likely to share good chemistry.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is also reported to have facilitated the invitation for Khan from the White House.
Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi explained why the Pakistanis are excited by the mere opportunity of a meeting with an American President who famously declared just last year that the US had got nothing but “lies and deceit” from Pakistan.
By inviting Khan for a meeting, Trump has already come a long way from his New Year’s Day tweet of 1 January, 2018. At that time, he had said, “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”
Qureshi pointed out that “from isolation, we have moved toward invitation”. For Pakistan, the invitation is of itself an “acknowledgement of the inherent importance of the relationship for both sides”.
The Americans’ interest in the meeting is, of course, to seek greater cooperation of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in securing a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Washington is in deal-mode these days, and there is a presumption that there is a deal to be made with everyone –from Kim Jung Un of North Korea to the Afghan Taliban.
That states, leaders and terrorist groups might have beliefs and ideologies that preclude a deal is a fact of life that ‘Art of the Deal’-dominated Washington seems to ignore until the delay or failure in deal-making becomes apparent.
To convince President Trump that a deal with Pakistan is possible, army chief General Qamar Bajwa and ISI chief Lt General Faiz Hameed are accompanying Prime Minister Khan. That this shows Khan’s weakness is less relevant to the dealmakers than the prospect of talking directly to Pakistan’s generals, who might be able to deliver once a deal is made.
Actions have already been initiated to generate news stories that might raise hopes that Pakistan is not only ready for a deal, but might even fulfil it this time around. The mastermind of several terrorist attacks in India, including the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, Hafiz Saeed has been arrested for the seventh time since 2001.
Madrasa and school curriculum reforms have been announced for the fifth time since 2001. And there has even been a suicide bombing Sunday in Pakistan’s northwest city of Dera Ismail Khan, proving Pakistan understands the cost inflicted by terrorism. Expect PM Khan to make that point vehemently, with Generals Bajwa and Hameed nodding in agreement, at the meeting in the White House.
But if Khan and General Bajwa are hoping to overcome a history of suspicion with personal chemistry, it won’t be that easy. The White House meeting will go well, just as General Pervez Musharraf’s meeting soon after 9/11 did. But this time, it is unlikely that the US will open its cheque book and move Pakistan from the column of ‘unreliable partners’ to ‘reliable allies’ right away.
The visit will be weak on substance, notwithstanding the symbolic value of a Pakistani prime minister and army chief showing up at the White House together to make new promises of counter-terrorism cooperation. On Afghanistan, the US would want Pakistan to get the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire and talks with the Kabul government, which is by no means an easy deliverable even for the mighty ISI.
There is no constituency in Washington that wants to restore aid to Pakistan and statements about expanding trade would just be statements. In a capitalist economy, business deals and investment depend on the potential for profit, not goodwill between leaders. Even if President Trump says he wants more US investment in Pakistan, it is unlikely that American businesses will rush to Pakistan amid economic uncertainty and potentially poor returns.
But that won’t deter Khan and the military from raising hopes in Pakistan through the media, which will project the White House meeting as a ‘great success’ and ‘major breakthrough’. The Pakistan military believes that putting major opposition leaders in prison and gagging the media might become more palatable for Pakistanis with the prospect of the end of international isolation.
From the American point of view, this is an attempt to engage Pakistan at the highest level with the purpose of clarifying the rules of engagement in a transactional relationship. The army chief is coming and from the American point of view that makes it easy not to have to deal with the question of a civilian government turning around and saying that the army did not let us do what we promised.
But will another White House meeting change Pakistan’s behaviour in sponsoring Jihadi terrorist groups when many such meetings since 1989 and billions in aid have failed to secure such behavioural change since 1989? If President George H.W. Bush’s 1992 threat to declare Pakistan a state-sponsor of terrorism, delivered through Secretary of State James Baker, did not work, another great meeting is also unlikely to change Pakistan military’s worldview.
Only when the generals recognise that Pakistan has not really done well under their stewardship and allow honest debate about the military’s conduct as well as on Pakistan’s national purpose will there be real change in Pakistan. Until then, good meetings and promises will remain just that, whether they come from the generals themselves or from puppet civilians installed into office by them.