Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khans visit to the US next week is meant to reset Pakistans often stormy relations with the US. The first visit by Khan as Prime Minister of Pakistan had been under discussion for some weeks, but Islamabad got a jolt when the State Department spokesperson refuted Pakistani media reports of a meeting between the Pakistani Prime Minister and President Donald Trump, saying that there was no confirmation of a meeting of the two leaders by the White House. There was much relief in Islamabad when the White House confirmed two days later that a meeting would take place on July 22 in Washington.
It is a visit that will be watched carefully by observers in Delhi. US-Pakistan bilateral relations have been in a trough ever since Trump took over as the US President. Washington has pushed Islamabad to crack down on terrorist organizations operating in the country. But, for the forthcoming summit, Afghanistan will top the agenda of the Trump-Khan meeting since the US President is keen to declare peace in Afghanistan and bring back American soldiers.
Within Pakistan there is a general expectation that Khan’s US visit would end the recent acrimony in US-Pakistan ties and take back bilateral relations to the warmth and cordiality they once shared. Over the decades, Islamabad has become greatly adept in managing its relations with Washington through all the highs and lows they have traversed.
Trump had strongly castigated Pakistan when he had formulated his South Asia and Afghanistan strategy in 2017. Washington had suspended the security assistance it provided Islamabad and put on hold several military dialogues. Washington also pressured Islamabad to take action against terrorist groups. Khan and Trump had got into a twitter spat over Trump charging Pakistan of having done nothing for the US despite the billions of dollars of assistance Washington had given Pakistan. But shortly afterwards, Trump did one of his famous U-turns on foreign policy and wrote a letter to Khan, seeking his help to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
The visit comes at a time when there are signs of forward movement on the Afghanistan front. A meeting in Doha between US officials and Taliban representatives was described as productive. Even more significant was the first ever meeting between the Taliban leaders and representatives of the Afghan government and other groups.
The Taliban dropped its opposition to talking to the Afghan government and attended a two-day intra-Afghan meet, sponsored by Qatar and Germany, though the Afghan officials were said to be present in their personal capacity (a condition imposed by the Taliban). Afghan politicians, activists and women’s groups had peaceable discussions over two days with the Taliban representatives where they found some common ground, such as the need to cut down civilian casualties by avoiding targets, like schools, women and children.
Trump has made it clear that he wants American troops to be out of Afghanistan soon. He is an impatient leader and there is already a steady decrease in the number of American troops still in the war torn country over the past few months. As the peace talks progress, Islamabad will gain importance for ensuring the peaceful withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan through Pakistani territory. It will also look for a peaceful transfer of power to the Taliban in Kabul. Pakistan claims to have persuaded the Taliban to participate in the talks. It wants the Taliban to have a prominent role in any future government in Kabul, which would maintain its interests in Afghanistan.
The changing equations between Washington and Islamabad were evident in early July when the US designated the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) as a global terrorist group. The separatist Baloch Liberation Army has carried out an armed struggle against the Pakistani government for more than a decade. Pakistan banned the militant group in 2006 after a series of attacks on Pakistani security forces, and had been urging the US to ban the outfit.
Islamabad has also taken some action against militant groups just before Khan travels to Washington. It filed cases against the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) chief Hafiz Saeed and other senior leaders for financing terrorist activities and money laundering. Washington has been pressing Pakistan to take action against the terrorist groups. Pakistan is also facing scrutiny for the past year from the international watch-dog, Financial Action Task Force (FATF). The FATF had warned Pakistan in June to implement its own action plan to control terror financing before the October deadline or be placed on its blacklist.
Confirming the leaders’ meeting on July 22, a White House statement said their talks would strengthen bilateral cooperation, which would bring “peace, stability and economic prosperity to the entire region”. With the focus on Afghanistan, the question remains – will the issue of terrorist organizations operating from Pakistan recede to the background?