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Pakistan-US Relations: Perhaps Imran Khan Is Looking For His ‘Ayub Khan moment’

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If politics was just an act of diplomacy and good optics, we could say that Prime Minister Imran Khan had mastered it, but unfortunately, it is more than that. Although Khan’s maiden visit to United States was unique in many aspects, but much in league with his politics, the tour came with immense media hype, sweeping statements, and at best, delusional promises.

Flanked by the close associates in Qatar and at his party’s convention in Washington DC, the climax, was the surprisingly warm and optimistic meeting with American President Donald Trump, who said just about everything, the establishment in Islamabad wanted to hear. The rally in the Capital One Arena made the headlines, whereby the charismatic leader was able to attract the largest gathering of Pakistani diaspora in the US, however, the opportunity was largely wasted to prove himself as a unifying force of democracy. Failing to rise above petty politics as a national leader, the vindictive avenger side of PM Khan took over, showcasing the instability inside the country.

Diplomatically, his meeting was shadowed by a formidable presence of Pakistan’s security leadership. While Khan’s performance was a charming show but arguably all the meaningful interaction took place during Gen Bajwa’s meetings with his counterparts at Pentagon. It endorses the common perception that in the 220 million-strong South Asian democracy, it is the Pakistan Army that holds all the influence and can apply leverages over Taliban which would make the difference in the US quest of achieving a dignified retreat from Afghanistan.

Khan only tried to leverage this influence, the unparalleled strategic intelligence of their activities and the highly-crucial geographic linkage with Afghanistan to establish mutually beneficial ties involving trade and investment. This is imperative for the US withdrawal from the longest war in American history, one that has already cost their economy $975 billion and can potentially, became an electoral liability for Trump. The US recognises how critical Pakistan is and therefore Trump made it clear that if the country behaves, security assistance could be restored with a manifold increase in bilateral.

Trump’s obliging offer to mediate the Kashmir issue stirred some controversy in the international media, making us wonder which one of the leaders of two most power nations in the world was lying to the other, yet again with barely any substantial progress on the Kashmir issue. This show of immense understanding and optimism about a great future together between Washington and Islamabad in addition to the Kashmir episode surely makes New Delhi’s position shakier than it was a month ago when Trump declared that their friendship has never been greater.

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Khan, however, has serious concerns of his own to deal with. During his conversation at the US Institute of Peace, while being confronted with yet another question on censorship and intimidation of journalists and civil society members in his country, he exclaimed that Pakistani media is “freer than the British media”. It gets hard to decipher here who the real Khan is. This one, or the one who promised his nation never to lie if he is given office. International watchdogs, Pakistani journalists and media houses refer to it as a crackdown on press freedoms, where so much as tweets and Facebook posts are being monitored and censored. Any sort of criticism or even coverage of protest rallies by the opposition could lead to TV channels getting off-aired.

He defended the military establishment, on questions of enforced disappearances and the alleged violations against a civil society group, the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, campaigning for their rights and homes violated in wake of the War on Terror. Never has the Pakistani establishment had such a well-versed spokesperson and that too in the disguise of a democratically elected leader.

Tensions in the past

Pakistan has had somewhat of a cyclical relationship with the US. These relations tend to be much better during military dictatorship, especially considering that Ayub Khan and Ziaul Haq were the only two Pakistani presidents to be honoured with state visits, the highest ranking visit that can only be offered at the invitation of the President of the United States. While the two countries met a point of serious contention, resulting in sanctions on Pakistan in 1976 when ZA Bhutto rejected Kissinger’s warnings against perusing the nuclear programme.

A few years later under Ziaul Haq’s regime, Gen Akhtar Khan, the then DG ISI, masterminded the mujahedeen network in Afghanistan against the Soviets, with the Central Intelligence Agency. This network later took the shape of al Qaeda. Thereafter, there has been a long history of deceit, unfulfilled promises, covert actives and sacrifices on both sides. From Pakistan losing 75,000 lives and $123 billion in fighting the US war on terror, yet from alleged “harbouring terrorist cells” on its soil to the US failing to materialise Reconstruction Opportunity Zones or helping to reallocate the millions displaced during the war, leave alone acknowledging Pakistan’s contributions, the relationship has grown fragile.

From the Pressler Amendment to the Kerry-Lugar bill, the two countries do share a certain history. Now in past few years, Pakistan grew closer to China who is increasingly seen by the US as a strategic threat at policy level.

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The relation between the two countries went downhill when Trump declared millions being wasted over “deceitful” Pakistan. Subsequently aid and security assistance including the critical IMETP (International military Exchange and Training Programme) was suspended. A final nail in coffin was the “grey listing” of Pakistan by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), costing billions to the already staggering economy. But it seems that with these talks Pakistan is now reverting to a former friend.

The question remains, what happens to the relationship if Pakistan is not able deliver on its promise, considering the entrenched establishment and bureaucratic drift in the country, especially since many members of the former may have vested interests in prolonging the instability in Afghanistan to maintain their relevance and thus stronghold in the country? Thus, one meeting or a promise for a drastic policy shift is not likely to undo years of clandestine activities and the damage that they have caused to both sides. Perhaps Khan is looking for his Ayub Khan moment and a ticker tape parade in New York, forgetting that Ayub later had to write “Friends not Masters” to explain the subordinate relationship that Pakistan has always had with the US.

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