US-Pakistan: From being rebuked to being welcomed |Opinion
For Imran Khan to be escorted into the White House by the man who accused Pakistan of “deceit and lies”, the sense of relief and accomplishment felt in Pakistan cannot be exaggerated. Trump’s assessment of Pakistan’s role has changedUpdated: Aug 03, 2019, 10:41 IST
As Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan stepped out of the car to meet United States President Donald Trump at the White House entrance last week, a Pakistan news anchor breathlessly declared the start of a new era in ties between the two nations.
It was a long way from January 1, 2018, when Trump greeted Pakistanis with a devastating tweet, accusing them of “deceit and lies”, and followed it up with the suspension of millions of dollars in security aid. That was a new low for bilateral relations, overtaken only by an even newer low every few months since.
For Khan to be escorted into the White House by the same man, the sense of relief and accomplishment felt in Pakistan cannot be exaggerated.
The Pakistani delegation grandly declared that the visit had “reset” ties. US officials were less effusive in comparison, but acknowledged that just the fact that Trump met Khan signalled “progress” relative to the aid suspension. Even Indians, who watched the White House reception closely — comparing it with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s June 2017 visit, step for step — and the Oval Office media interaction with the two leaders that followed, were impressed. They were also horrified, needless to say, by Trump’s offer to mediate the Kashmir dispute.
That was indeed a long way from the “deceit and lies” tweet.
Hints of an undergoing thaw were around, especially after Trump wrote Khan a letter last November seeking Pakistan’s help to advance the Afghanistan peace process and end America’s longest war, as he had promised during his 2016 run for the White House. Angry tweets and ad-libbed remarks bashing Pakistan almost disappeared. Even his comments regarding the Pulwama attack in February, the Balakot strike, and the downing of an Indian MiG-21 were perfunctory, not Trumpian.
Other officials and aides kept up their efforts, however. The state department, for instance, led an unprecedented move to threaten to move the plea to designate Masood Azhar of Jaish-e-Mohammad to the full United Nations Security Council to force China to drop its opposition.
But Trump went quiet, with his eyes fixed on a different prize: Afghanistan, and his election promise to end the war.
Khan, meanwhile, had delivered. Pakistan released Mullah Baradar, a senior Taliban figure, from jail who would go on to lead the Taliban at the Doha talks brokered by US special representative, Zalmay Khalilzad. As these effort gathered steam, and prospects for peace brightened, so did the Trump administration’s estimation of Pakistan as a factor. Khan had delivered Baradar and, in US expectations, he could now be used to overcome the last and most significant hurdle: Get the Taliban to agree to talk to the Afghan government, which the group considers illegitimate.
But here is a worrying question for Indian diplomats and experts: What if Pakistan does indeed force the Taliban to negotiate with the government in Kabul, fulfilling the most important of American asks? Can India counter that? And how?