A Thaw In Pak- US Relations

5 mins read

Tasneem Kabir       Thaw

Recently, Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan returned from his maiden visit to the United States of America. The entire course of the visit was interesting, in that the four stakeholders viz. the US, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan had their eyes on what the visit might mean at the conclusion of talks.

So much so that news houses have even started inquiring into whether the clothes Imran Khan was wearing (Pakistani salwar-kameez and Peshawari slippers) were designer or not, after two Pakistani luxury labels claimed craftsmanship for the dress – all this, while Imran Khan’s wife Bushra Bibi insists it was stitched by a “local tailor” who charged a nominal fee. Such is the frenzy surrounding this visit.

The foremost area worth mentioning vis-a-vis this trip is defence. Some days after the conclusion of the trip, the Pentagon announced that it had approved military sales worth USD 125 million to support Pakistan’s F-16 jets. US officials claimed that the freeze in security assistance to Pakistan in effect since January 2018 is still valid and the latest decision would help it in 24×7 end-use monitoring of the F-16 fighter jets in that country as this would require the assignment of 60 contractor representatives there to assist in the oversight of the F-16 programme.

“There has been no change to the security assistance suspension announced by the president in January 2018. As the president reiterated this week, we could consider the restoration of certain security assistance programmes consistent with the broader tenor of our relationship,” a state department spokesperson told news agency Press Trust of India. Clearly, Imran Khan has done something in pleasing Donald Trump in this respect. Pakistan has been receiving F-16 fighters from the US since the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was the US President and General Zia was the military leader of Pakistan. An F-16 aircraft cost at least $18.8 million per unit with an operational cost per flight hour of up to $24,000. With a wingspan of 31 feet, the aircraft can attain a maximum speed of 1500 miles per hour. Pakistan had, in February this year, used F-16 against India, the latest being in the aftermath of the Balakot airstrike inside Pakistan by India. However, it had denied the allegation saying it never used American F-16s in its attempted airstrike on military installations in the Rajouri sector. After this, as a proof, India had presented parts of a fired missile which can only be fired from an F-16 aircraft. Given that, it definitely seems like a let-down to India, for the US has gone ahead and trusted Pakistan again despite a misuse of said ammunition staring us right in the face.

Next, terrorism, the issue central to any talks concerning Pakistan, was not seen to be a major talking point in meetings between both the military and the civilian leadership where Imran Khan was in the States. Khan has previously claimed on various forums how he is in vehement opposition to terrorism. He has also stated on one occasion that there exists a civil-military agreement in Pakistan that “it’s in the interest of Pakistan to not allow militias” within the country. So far, Washington seems to endorse Pakistan’s stance on terrorism and appears to believe Khan’s claims. However, in a gripping turn of events, President Donald Trump announced on Thursday that it was now time for Pakistan to build on the commitments that its Prime Minister Imran Khan made during his recent visit to Washington. Khan reportedly promised to facilitate peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghanistan government, and fight against terrorism. So, it does seem like the United States has mounted pressure on the Pakistani leadership for a speedy redressal of cross-border terrorism. That, or Donald Trump could be lying as the current air seems to suggest. Even Imran Khan duly played his part in that prior to his visit, in that he announced the re-opening of the Pakistani airspace for air-traffic. Two can definitely play the game.

Talking of lies liars, during this visit, Pakistan won itself an unexpected takeaway: Trump casually, in his signature style, raised the Kashmir issue and expressed his willingness to pose as a mediator between the concerned parties India and Pakistan. He even went to state that the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself requested him to mediate. This came in as a sweetener for Islamabad, for New Delhi has stopped all dialogue and negotiation with Pakistan on the Kashmir crisis, and plans to do so till Pakistan puts an end to all terrorism it perpetuates in J&K. Pakistan under Imran Khan has been insistent about dialogue, and so have the leading political voices of Jammu and Kashmir, including the Separatists (Hurriyat). However, New Delhi has been obstinate about its condition. In this light, the fresh news Trump delivered sent shockwaves centred in Washington all the way across the Indian Subcontinent. Pakistan, needless to say, remains overjoyed at the revelation while the Indian political scenario is nothing short of a dramatic movie. The Opposition here in India has grilled the NDA leadership over what is seen as gross hypocrisy. The ruling leadership did send out representatives stating that the Prime Minister Modi made no such request, but the Opposition remained insistent on Modi himself giving the clarification. However, the one thing that the “invincible” Modi can’t do is outright call President Donald Trump a liar. That would amount to a sharp snipping of the flimsy rope that ties India and America, even as India faces impending sanctions over importing Iranian crude oil as well as the nascent trade-war between the two nations. Say, Trump has indeed lied, he must have done so to cajole Pakistan into facilitating a smooth exit for American troops from Afghanistan, for Pakistan is the sole entity that enjoys clout with Pakistan. As for the damage done to the ties with India as a result of the lie, the whimsical White House probably thought that it would get away with it by extending the deadline for the imposition of sanctions on India over Iranian crude oil imports. There’s no saying what goes through Trump’s mind.

Lastly, coming to the elephant in the room, the visit portended a significant push to the issue of Afghanistan. “We’re working with Pakistan and others on getting an agreement signed” with the Taliban while the United States continues to “very slowly and very safely” reduce the number of its troops in Afghanistan, said Trump during his initial meeting with Imran Khan at the White House. The Pakistani prime minister stated that “this is the closest we’ve been to a peace deal in Afghanistan. There’s no military solution in Afghanistan.” As for the ongoing talks between the United States of America and the Taliban, who have become something of a de-facto leadership in the war-torn Afghanistan, there seems to be no end, and no shore in sight. Hence, we saw the United States amp up its interactions with Pakistan, in the possible hope that the latter may facilitate as well as speed up the procedure of a deal with Taliban. That might explain the F-16 programme. Trump is taking all these steps in order to make sure he delivers on his electoral promise of withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan completely in his term, never mind what it means for the average Afghan caught in the middle of an unfinished, direction-less war. While the meeting between the two nations may have not given an explicit course of action on the Afghan issue, we can rest assured that Pakistan will take double the pains in facilitating the American withdrawal.

All in all, the visit in question has been one that can be called a success, for the leaders managed to touch upon all issues that concern both sides. It has left us with the certainty that Pakistan and the US will be a tight pair now on (Afghanistan, you are the reason!), and the uncertainty about how India and the US will deal with Trump’s Kashmir gaffe as well as what it means to be living in Afghanistan at this ominous time.

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