US President Donald Trump has given Pakistan’s establishment and Prime Minister Imran Khan something to celebrate about. As predicted, the meeting between Trump and Khan went well, too well, by the standards of Pakistanis eager for good news. Imran Khan can now return home to claim he has broken Pakistan’s international isolation, secured a central role in efforts for peace in Afghanistan, and even evoked Trump’s interest in the Kashmir question.
Imran Khan and the Pakistani establishment needed this break, however brief it might turn out to be. Trump embracing Khan will put off China, even if the Chinese maintain their usual inscrutability and refrain from public expressions of concern. Pakistan’s economy continues to be in decline and there is no sign of fresh investment. The country has borrowed $16 billion over the last one year, exports remain stagnant, and foreign exchange reserves have not increased beyond the $8 billion mark.
Moreover, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz, has attracted massive crowds across Punjab province, demonstrating the precariousness of Imran Khan’s support in Pakistan’s most populous province. Heavy-handed tactics, the military’s backing, and a clampdown on media cannot change the fact that Maryam Nawaz is consolidating her father’s support base and becoming a popular challenger to Khan and the establishment.
In such an environment, a good meeting with Trump is a good break, never mind Khan’s previous statements about the United States and even Trump. But Trump’s affections are somewhat fickle, just as Khan is known for his U-Turns, something which he has not only defended but even proclaimed as the sign of ‘a real leader’.
Just because he was hospitable does not mean Trump has suddenly become pro-Pakistan. He wants Pakistan’s help with a deal on Afghanistan and has, in return, dangled the prospect of help that he thinks Pakistan wants. Trump praised Pakistan and Imran Khan tactically, just as he praised North Korea’s Kim Jong Un as part of his standard procedure to try and get a deal.
Remember when Trump said he and Kim Jong Un had fallen in love? Or when he said he received a “beautiful letter” from North Korea’s murderous dictator, which he described as a sign of progress for denuclearisation talks? There has been no grand bargain in the Korean peninsula and Trump will soon realise that South Asia’s issues are also more complex than real estate negotiations.
For example, while Pakistan may have facilitated direct US negotiations with the Taliban, it is unlikely to stop providing the Taliban safe haven if they do not agree to a ceasefire and refuse to talk to the Afghan government. Trump likes America to win but, so far, the so-called Afghan peace talks just seem to be a recipe for an eventual Taliban victory.
Trump’s remarks about being able to end the war in Afghanistan in 10 days, presumably with weapons of mass destruction, have elicited a strong reaction from the otherwise quiet and gentle Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani. It could have the effect of uniting anti-Taliban Afghans, preparing them for a tough stance in what the US now calls ‘intra-Afghan dialogue.’
Khan’s short-lived moment of glory
The US has come a long way from the time when it sought an Afghan-led peace process and blamed Pakistan for the Taliban’s attacks inside Afghanistan. But even now, the Taliban remain the enemy and everyone knows where their leaders reside. If peace talks fail, Trump’s fantasy of ending the war with stronger firepower would inevitably involve damage to Pakistan.
Pakistan wants the US to pressure India into some new discussions over Kashmir in return for helping Americans talk to the Taliban. That might be beyond even America’s capabilities. Just as the Indian Ministry of External Affairs made clear in less than an hour of Trump’s remarks about US mediation over Kashmir, India will not budge from its position that India-Pakistan issues must be resolved bilaterally.
The US State Department has since walked back the comments about mediation, reiterating the US policy of letting India and Pakistan interact bilaterally. The US could ask India to resume talks with Pakistan, but India still has the ability to refuse until its complaints about Pakistan-based jihadi groups are addressed.
So, the optics of the Donald Trump-Imran Khan meeting notwithstanding, Pakistan is not in a very good position in its ties with the United States. Pakistanis want Trump and the US to solve the problems with their neighbouring countries and help Pakistan punch above its weight. But that will just not happen.
Trump reflects middle-class America’s sentiment when he says that the US cannot be the world’s policeman. A corollary to that is that America can also not be the world’s problem-solver.
The glory of Imran Khan’s ‘great’ Oval Office meeting will be ephemeral. The real solution to Pakistan’s problems lies in ending militarism and militancy, building an economy that does not need constant infusions of debt and aid, seeking genuine friendship with neighbours including Afghanistan and India, and allowing the nation’s ethnic, religious, and political diversity to flourish. There seems to be no sign at the moment that Pakistan could achieve any of these.
Even if Pakistan is somehow able to fulfil American expectations in relation to Afghanistan, it is likely going to be disappointed in the end. The Afghan peace talks have given Pakistan a temporary transactional advantage. But once the US pulls out of Afghanistan, Pakistan’s importance for Trump will diminish.
Trump said during his meeting with Imran Khan that “Pakistan is a big country;” he could someday turn around and remember that India is even bigger.