SALMAN BASHIR — On the invitation of President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Imran Khan will visit Washington DC on Sunday. The visit was initiated and announced by the White House and is an important gesture towards Pakistan by the Trump administration.
But here is the big question: What has prompted Trump to move away from a coercive approach to a cooperative one towards Islamabad in a rather quick turn of heart?
To his credit, Trump was the first to recognize that the real interests of the US and Pakistan had begun to converge. He prioritized a draw-down of US forces from Afghanistan, correctly concluding that the war now entering its 18th year was unwinnable and that there was a need to work out a political settlement. For him this is a national, political and electoral priority. The US establishment continued to strongly resist such a course and Pakistan used its geographical proximity and limited influence with the Afghans, notably the Afghan Taliban, to facilitate US-Taliban Talks.
An Afghan political settlement signed and sealed at the White House under the auspices of President Trump will be a monumental moment for the cause of durable peace in Afghanistan and the region as a whole. The timelines are dictated by US electoral considerations and the search for a fair and binding agreement has lately intensified.
A notable aspect is the emerging great power consensus on Afghanistan arrived at in Beijing recently between Russia, China and the US to which Pakistan was invited. Zalmay Khalilzad, US special envoy to Afghanistan, also sounds optimistic about an all-Afghan settlement.
The turbulent security environment in South Asia is also a matter of concern for the US. Although India figures high in the US Indo-Pacific strategy directed against China, Trump is not particularly fascinated by Prime Minister Modi. India has opted for the Russian S-400 missile system much to the disappointment of the US. Moreover, Trump does not view the Indian protectionist attitude on trade as the sign of a great partnership. This is why he did not shy away from using his famous twitter tool to chastise India even as secretary of state Mike Pompeo was in New Delhi trying to cajole the Indians.
So far, Modi’s second administration has not responded to Pakistan’s gestures for normalization and the improvement of relations. It has continued to revel in a delusional policy of isolating Pakistan and is bent on using hard power against the Kashmiris. The Indians seem to have been counting on their growing relations with the US to take an adamant stance vis-a-vis Pakistan. But Trump, far more than the US strategic community, has been able to read the situation correctly.
The renewal of Pakistan-US relations will hopefully be beneficial in moderating the Indian policy calculus concerning Pakistan. The revival of South Asian Economic Cooperation under SAARC will also help open up a two billion strong market for the US and the world. Already, Pakistan is conceptually onboard with the US on an enlightened vision for South Asia’s future.
Pakistan wants to turn a page in its bilateral relations with the US. It is not looking for economic assistance but mutually beneficial trade and investment ties. Energy cooperation, including gas imports and exploration, development and production of oil and gas fields in Pakistan are again areas of mutual benefit. Islamabad has had a long security and defense partnership with the US which was interrupted for the last two years.
The geography of Pakistan as the pivot between South Asia and energy rich regions of Central Asia and the Middle East as well as its rich cultural and historic ties with these regions make it a useful piece in positing US interests in this vast region. An exciting near-term objective is to sketch out Pakistan-US cooperation for post-settlement security, and economic stability architecture for Afghanistan.
It is certainly to President Trump’s credit that he proceeds on the basis of his instincts, which in most instances are correct and more in tune with the new world. He is therefore way ahead of the US bureaucracy. It is true that Trump’s view of President Putin, President Xi Jinping and Chairman Kim Jong Un is at variance with that of the US strategic community or mainstream media. In his quest to ‘make America great again,’ he has taken bold decisions, which are unconventional but also reveal the limits of conventional thinking in a fast-changing global society.
Similarly, under the ethos of a ‘Naya’ (new) Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan has to his credit, sincerity and commitment to changing the country’s society and governance for the better. In their own right, both leaders are celebrities and their personal chemistry should match well in forging what both sides have called ‘an enduring partnership.’
The author is a former Foreign Secretary