Imran Khan(AFP FILE)
Imran Khan(AFP FILE)

Imran Khan came with hope to reset ties with US, got only respite

Imran Khan promised to persuade the Taliban to agree to talks with the Afghan government in the search for a political solution ahead of the September general elections.
Hindustan Times, Washington | By Yashwant Raj
UPDATED ON JUL 26, 2019 08:05 PM IST

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan came to the United States to reset ties with an estranged ally but may have to settle for merely a respite from hostility for now at least, till he delivers on promises he made during the visit, from delivering the Taliban to always telling the Americans the truth.

The first progress report was sought on Thursday, just a day after Khan left for home.

It came when a reporter asked the US state department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus about American hostages, whose imminent release in 48 hours Khan had announced more than 72 hours ago last Monday, in joint remarks with President Donald Trump.

“The prime minister did say that,” Ortagus said acknowledging the lapsed deadline.

“We are, of course, working closely with the Pakistanis on recovering them. We think his statements were helpful and we’re of course hopeful that there will be some action proceeding those statements,” she said.

Imran Khan also promised to persuade the Taliban to agree to talks with the Afghan government in the search for a political solution ahead of the September general elections. And, also undertake sustainable counter-terrorism measures unlike in the past and to tell the truth, as he told lawmakers at a reception on Capitol Hill on the last day of his three-day visit.

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The last was an important concession from his point of view as he said much of the present distrust and tension in ties stemmed from the then Pakistan government’s failure to tell the truth.

Khan also promised — in an interview to President Trump’s favourite Fox News channel — to consider a swapping Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani physician who helped the CIA ascertain al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and his family’s hideout in Abbottabad.

The United States has been seeking Afridi’s release in return for Afia Siddiqui, a Pakistani American neuroscientist with suspected al Qaeda links serving an 86-year sentence for, among other things, shooting an FBI agent during interrogation in custody in Afghanistan.

Khan might have felt pressured to make these promises as a guest thrust upon the administration by one of President Trump’s closest allies on the Capitol Hill, Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina. Graham had orchestrated the visit, single-handedly and not with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin-Salman and Jared Kushner, the US president’s son-in-law and top adviser, as has been suggested in some news reports citing unidentified Pakistani cabinet ministers.

But some south Asia watchers said Pakistan might have over-played their Graham card when foreign minister Mehmood Qureshi attacked Trump administration’s top officials on the region, Lisa Curtis at the White House and Alice Wells at the state department, accusing them of blocking Pakistan. He told Pakistani journalists, “We cannot forget the fact that the relationship between the two countries was such that no door was being opened for us in the time of Alice Wells and Lisa Curtis.”

Does that look like a part of a reset effort, asked a Pakistan watcher who suggested Pakistan might have “over-estimated its Graham-card”. The senator, it was pointed out, was a staunch opponent of Trump before he became an ally. He ran against Trump for the White House.

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The reset Khan had desired, and his government has since claimed as achieved, is actually a cessation of hostilities from the US side, which is still not entirely convinced about Khan, his ideology — “Taliban Khan”, remember? — and, most importantly, his command of the military.

While arguing that the “respect and recognition” Khan received on the visit was more important at this time in view of Pakistan’s long-running complaint of not been accorded enough credit for its contribution to the war on terrorism, Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert with Wilson Center, a leading think tank, admitted Khan “may not have gotten the reset he sought while in Washington”.

“The Trump administration saw this visit as an opportunity to reward Islamabad for the assistance it’s provided to the US with the Taliban peace talks. For Washington, Afghan reconciliation remains the priority in the relationship with Pakistan, and despite all the great optics and good vibes emerging from the visit, the White House, for now, will continue to look at the relationship with Pakistan through that narrow lens,” he said.

But, from US perspective, Kugelman added, “a reset and expansion of the relationship may be possible eventually, but not until America sees Pakistan delivering more on the Afghan reconciliation front, and also on the counterterrorism front.”

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