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Coming Up Trumps

by Khaled Ahmed
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U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Imran Khan, left, meet at the White House in Washington, D.C., on July 22, 2019. Nicholas Kamm—AFP

Imran Khan’s trip to Washington has laid the groundwork for a reset of Pakistan-U.S. ties. Will it pan out?

A triumphant Imran Khan returned to Pakistan on July 24, high on the success of his meeting by invitation with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C. Reinforced by the presence of Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the trip is already being hailed by talking heads at home for ‘resetting’ ties between Islamabad and Washington.

Khan’s inaugural trip to the United States as Prime Minister of Pakistan commenced with an address to mostly expatriate Pakistanis at Washington’s Capital One Arena. With a seating capacity of approximately 20,000, the packed venue witnessed Khan’s trademark rhetoric, with him repeating his resolve to punish corrupt politicians back home. He also assured the crowd he would not let them down during his meeting with Trump the next day.

That meeting, a curtain-raiser before the press, went rather well, with neither leader issuing any embarrassing outbursts. It was clear that Trump wants Pakistan to bail his troops out of Afghanistan and save the U.S. the $4 billion it spends there annually, while saying rather gauchely that he could have killed millions of Afghans in a week and finished off the Taliban if he did not wish to avoid civilian casualties. Trump also asked Khan to intercede with the Taliban and get them to agree to a ceasefire and talk directly to the America-supported Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul. Special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, negotiating peace with the insurgents, has claimed progress on this front, despite the Taliban continuing to kill people in Afghanistan whenever they feel their authority is threatened.

Baling out America

Prime Minister Khan, perhaps acting on the basis of information unavailable to the general masses, appeared confident Islamabad could convince the Taliban to give up aggression, announce a ceasefire and engage in direct negotiations with the Ashraf Ghani-led government. This raised eyebrows among many regional observers, who questioned whether Pakistan had any firm leverage over the Taliban to ensure this development. Journalist and author Ahmed Rashid, an expert on the Taliban, however believes Khan’s confident claims of “good news” for Trump likely suggest the Pakistan Army and its intelligence arm, the ISI, are already in communication with the insurgents and should be able to produce results.

Regardless, the Taliban do not appear to be willing to give up any ground. In a statement reported by The Long War Journal, the militants ominously blame America for the 9/11 hijackings, describing the Al Qaeda attack as “heavy slap on their [America’s] dark faces [as a] consequence of their interventionist policies, and not our doing.” The video message also showed “footage of the United Airlines Flight 175 slamming into the World Trade Center” in the background.

According to the website, which reports on the war on terror, the message was “consistent with the reasoning of the group’s deceased founder, Mullah Omar” who was “interviewed by Voice of America in late September 2001, just weeks after Al Qaeda struck in New York City and Washington, steadfastly refusing to turn over Osama bin Laden, saying it wasn’t an issue of Al Qaeda’s leader, it was an issue of Islam. Islam’s prestige was at stake. So was Afghanistan’s tradition.”

Pakistani newspapers cover Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Washington, D.C. meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump. Aamir Qureshi—AFP

Khan’s Trump card

Despite this, the Khan-Trump meeting appeared to hit all the right notes. An easy chemistry between the two leaders, described by many as having similar personalities, no doubt played a part. It was also clear—perhaps due to pre-visit discussions—that Washington believes Islamabad can get the Afghan Taliban to accept the authority of Kabul.

Trump’s hints at unblocking $1.3 billion in aid to Pakistan that he halted last year after saying Islamabad does not do “a damn thing” clearly signaled this optimism. The seeds of this thawing had already been sown, as an increasingly cornered Pakistan realized the need to change its internal policies. In advance of the Trump visit, Islamabad detained alleged Mumbai attacks mastermind Hafiz Saeed—to the U.S. president’s delight; it also submitted to the fiat of anti-money laundering Financial Action Task Force and pledged to act against non-state actors operating from its soil.

This policy shift speaks to the growing cooperation between the civilian and military arms of Pakistan following Khan’s rise to the premiership. General Bajwa had earlier joined Imran Khan to promote “normalization” with India through the Kartarpur Corridor—which President Trump pointedly appreciated—and had also talked of developing trade and “connectivity” with India: “regions, not states, make economic progress.” Other events have also fallen into place. This month’s Four-Party Meeting on the Afghan Peace Process, comprising China, the U.S., Russia and Pakistan, also moved Islamabad closer to Washington’s orbit, adopting a “peace settlement” that literally ousted India and Iran—and even Afghanistan. Former Indian diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar made clear New Delhi’s views in his comment on the agreement: “In a regional setting, it also signifies that Pakistan has inflicted a heavy defeat on India in the decade-old proxy war in Afghanistan.”

Swapping spies

In Pakistan, the Trump administration’s decision to declare the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) a terrorist organization was a welcome surprise, as it came in defiance of a pro-Free Balochistan lobby in the U.S. Congress. Bhadrakumar’s reference to a “proxy war” clearly pointed to India’s use of the BLA to make mischief in Pakistan, and supported Islamabad’s arrest and conviction of Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav for orchestrating terrorist acts in Balochistan.

But while Pakistan was moving closer to the U.S, Washington was also drifting away from New Delhi. After the U.S. removed India’s preferential trade status, New Delhi retaliated by imposing tariffs on 28 American products. Last month, Trump slammed these new duties and demanded they be withdrawn. India has also been forced to stop buying oil from Iran or risk U.S. sanctions. The reduced trade with Tehran appears to have also convinced New Delhi to pull its support from the Chabahar Port, a joint initiative of India, Iran and Afghanistan; India’s allocation to the project has been reduced from INR 1.5 billion to INR 450 million.

The biggest shock for India, however, came during Trump’s meeting with Khan. The U.S. president offered to “mediate” the Kashmir issue between Pakistan and India to help the neighboring nations normalize ties. He claimed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him whether he would prefer to be ‘arbitrator’ or ‘mediator.’ While Khan was quick to embrace this offer, India rejected it, reiterating that Kashmir is a bilateral issue under the 1971 Simla Agreement. This is no surprise for regional observers, who have repeatedly seen the issue of Kashmir dash any attempts of peace between Islamabad and Delhi.

As outrage mounted in India over Modi’s alleged offer, New Delhi implied that Trump had lied about his interaction with the Indian P.M. and no request to mediate had been offered to the U.S. leader. While the State Department distanced itself from Trump’s statement, saying it sees Kashmir as a bilateral issue, it did not backtrack from Trump’s offer. If India pushes on the point, as noted by experts, it could bode ill for Indo-U.S. relations.

Making up with Modi

A key plank of Imran Khan’s foreign policy initiative, stated as far back as his inaugural speech, has been normalization with India. Unfortunately for the cricketer-turned-politician, his calls for dialogue with Modi either go unanswered, or have little effect as both countries continue to engage in cross-border fire along the Line of Control.

In the U.S., Khan reiterated that he had opted for peace by returning to India pilot Abhinandan Varthaman, downed after the Pulwama incident in “the first dogfight between the countries in 48 years.” With convicted spy Kulbhushan Jadhav still in custody, Khan has another bargaining chip in hand. But India, growing ever more authoritarian and intolerant under Modi, is unlikely to reciprocate. It sees the support Khan enjoys from Kashmiri Muslim leaders in India-Occupied Kashmir and is disinclined to believe that Islamabad will not try to utilize that backing as leverage.

There is no doubt that the global community has become increasingly disturbed by India’s actions to suppress protest in Kashmir and its inability to halt public lynchings of minorities by “cow vigilantes.” A U.N. report, dismissed by India but welcomed by Pakistan, took special note of the abuses being inflicted upon Kashmiris. But while the world doesn’t want India to continue its violence, it also does not wish Pakistan to grab Kashmir.

Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C. Alastair Pike—AFP

Reopening Abbottabad

P.M. Khan told Fox News that Islamabad would have acted against Osama bin Laden if Washington had shared his exact location prior to initiating Operation Neptune Spear, which killed the Al Qaeda leader in Pakistan in a secret, nighttime raid. He even claimed the operation was conduced on intelligence provided by the Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency. This may well be true.

Lt. Gen. Asad Durrani, a retired ISI chief currently under investigation by the Pakistan Army for potentially disclosing national secrets in Spy Chronicles, a book he co-authored with AS Dulat, a former spy chief of neighboring India, detailed his views in the controversial text: “I have no doubt that a retired Pakistani officer who was in intelligence walked in and told the Americans. I won’t take his name because I can’t prove it and also I don’t want to give him any publicity. How much of the $50 million [bounty on bin Laden] he got, who knows. But he is missing from Pakistan. I should know.”

The two doctors

During his trip, Khan expressed interest in another gesture to appease Pakistan critics in the U.S. He told Fox News he would consider freeing Dr. Shakeel Afridi, who helped the U.S. locate Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad through a vaccination campaign. Afridi, detained since 2011, was sentenced to 33 years in prison “for assisting an extremist tribal organization” by a four-member tribal court. If Khan chooses to let Afridi go, a point he admits is ‘emotional’ for his constituents, what would he get in return? The answer appears to be Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, serving an 86-year sentence in Texas after being found guilty of seven counts of attempted murder and assault of U.S. troops.

Senior journalist Zahid Hussain, writing in The Scorpion’s Tail: The Relentless Rise of Islamic Militants in Pakistan and How it Threatens America, detailed information that might—or might not—explain why Pakistan wants to free her:

“In October 2009, 10 gunmen in military uniform opened fire on the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. The GHQ assailants presented a list of demands, including that some 100 Pakistani and Afghan Taliban commanders being held by the security forces be freed. Among those on the list was a woman named Aafia Siddiqui, who faced trial in a New York court on a charge of assault with a deadly weapon and attempting to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. An MIT-trained Pakistani neuroscientist, Siddiqui was accused by the United Nations and the United States of being an Al Qaeda member and named one of the seven Most Wanted Al Qaeda figures by the FBI.

She had disappeared from Karachi in March 2003 after the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with whom she had close ties. After divorcing her first husband in 2003, she had married a nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was later arrested and sent to the U.S. government’s Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Siddiqui’s family claimed that she and her three children had been illegally detained and interrogated at that time by Pakistani intelligence, likely at the behest of the United States.”

Cost of coming clean

Why would Pakistan want Siddiqui back? If, as claimed by both Khan and Bajwa, Islamabad wants to cleanse itself of armed jihadi non-state actors, why would it rescue a woman who worked for Al Qaeda? The world knows that Pakistan is helpless in the face of its own internal lack of sovereignty vis-à-vis its non-state underworld. It is trying to “reform” 32,000 madrassas that often serve little purpose other than radicalizing youths, threatening its own internal security. In a bid to halt the free-flow of militants, the Pakistan Army is also undertaking the fencing of its border with Afghanistan. It also wants to reduce tensions on its eastern border, which require an end to its fixation on Kashmir.

The eastern border can be cooled by opening up trade and investment with India, allowing it to reach Afghanistan and the Central Asian states through a road network that will transform Pakistan just as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor promises to do; and which persuades China to pressure Pakistan to seek normalization with India. The leaders involved are “transformational” too, albeit with their negative aspects. Imran Khan and Narendra Modi can transform South Asia and make it prosperous or doom it through conflict. After reaching a “meeting of the minds” with Trump, Imran Khan now needs to find the right wavelength with Prime Minister Modi. “Resetting” ties with the U.S. is a laudable first step, but it is only through regional peace, can Pakistan achieve the prosperity long promised by Khan.

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