Yesterday, Donald Trump told reporters “I look forward to meeting with the folks from — and the new leadership in Pakistan, we’ll be doing that in the not-too-distant future“. In response Pakistan’s Foreign Office stated that its leadership looks forward to future positive engagements with the US.
Trump’s period in the White House has been marked by US moves to “greylist” Pakistan as nation that harbours terrorism, while Trump has also frequently stated that Pakistan has “done nothing” for the United States. Beyond this, not long after the 2018 general election in Pakistan, the US unilaterally cut $300 million in “aid” to Pakistan.
Trump is noted for his particularly intense rhetoric which he has used to effectively slander a Pakistani nation that made the ultimate sacrifice in preserving the peace amid a “war on terror” that the US unleashed in neighbouring Afghanistan. What is more is that far from “doing nothing”, Pakistan’s former leader Pervez Musharraf blindly followed America’s lead after 2001 and as a result, many thousands of Pakistanis paid with their lives for Mushaffaf and George W. Bush’s failure to think in the long term.
That being said, the last decade has shown Pakistan to be a supremely resilient nation in not only combating and neutralising the terror that was unleashed on the country from Afghanistan, but in also building new democratic political models in places like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa so that future generations are prepared to resist tides of global extremism.
But putting to one side Trump’s inflammatory remarks about Pakistan that have become a feature of his rhetoric, on the other hand, Pakistanis should embrace Trump for saying openly what multiple American policy makers and American mass media has been saying for years. Since 9/11 in particular, the United States has blamed Pakistan and Pakistanis for being enablers of terrorism when in reality, Pakistan has faced decades of terrorism sponsored by New Delhi, Kabul and their various international backers. By removing the mask, Trump has vindicated Imran Khan who since the 1990s warned Pakistanis that the United States was not all that it appeared to be in respect of being an ally of Pakistan.
In this sense, just as Imran Khan has been more honest in voicing the concerns of millions of Pakistanis regarding the relationship that past Pakistani elites have had with Washington, now Trump is coming clean about what America really thinks of Pakistan. While this otherwise may have lead to a downgrading in bilateral relations, in actual fact, it gives both sides the opportunity to become more frank and transparent during the course of mutual exchanges.
The overriding reality is that due to the mess America made in Afghanistan, in many ways, the US now needs Pakistan more than the inverse is true.
It is difficult to imagine a successful Afghan peace process that did not both involve transparent negotiations between moderate Taliban representatives and peace minded members of the current Kabul government. Likewise, it would be fanciful to assume that such a thing could happen without Pakistan fostering an atmosphere of peace which necessarily precludes realising success in a Kabul-Taliban dialogue process. While this has been the long standing reality, prior to the arrival of Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Imran Khan, this was a reality that was implied rather than one which was overtly proclaimed. Now though, both Imran Khan and even the US President (in spite of his strong anti-Pakistan rhetoric) have admitted this long standing reality.
This became apparent when in spite of cutting off “aid” to Pakistan over what Donald Trump claimed was his assessment that Pakistan had “done nothing” to help the American so-called “war on terror”, Trump nevertheless sent Imran Khan a letter asking for assistance in ending the longest war in US history – the war in Afghanistan. Regarding the recent peace talks in the UAE involving the United States and the Taliban, Imran Khan issued the following statement:
“Pakistan has helped in the dialogue between Taliban and the US in Abu Dhabi. Let us pray that this leads to peace and ends almost three decades of suffering of the brave Afghan people. Pakistan will be doing everything within its power to further the peace process”.
Pakistan has helped in the dialogue between Taliban and the US in Abu Dhabi. Let us pray that this leads to peace and ends almost three decades of suffering of the brave Afghan people. Pakistan will be doing everything within its power to further the peace process.
— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) December 18, 2018
Thus, what was once whispered throughout diplomatic corridors across the world is now being acknowledged by both the United States and Pakistan. This is especially significant as under Donald Trump and Imran Khan, both nations have become far more open about what they have felt about one another’s nations for some time. In Pakistan, millions remain angry that ordinary Pakistanis and Pakistan’s army bore the human and material brunt of an Afghan war that the US started without having a real long-term game-plan in 2001. Having seen that even now the US has no genuine strategy in Afghanistan other than one of obstructing the growth of China’s Belt and Road as well as a regional rapprochement between Iran and Pakistan, in addition to that between Pakistan and Russian, Pakistanis are becoming more vocal about their long standing feelings of being chewed up and spit out by successive Washington administrations.
At the same time, as the US pivots ever more towards India, many in Washington are now openly deriding Pakistan in manners that previously were only audible among the American right and parts of the pro-India American left. Thus, two clashing narratives that existed among civilians for nearly two decades are now being voiced openly. Pakistan under Imran Khan is telling the United States that it will no longer allow itself to be used and abused by Washington for America’s unilateral regional “gains”, while the US is accusing Pakistan of being an enabler of terrorism -a long standing Indian misinformation narrative that many American elites secretly believed but did not dare say until the arrival of Donald Trump.
And yet in spite of this open airing of conflicting grievances, both Islamabad and Washington have shown signs of mutually acknowledging the fact that there is no route to Afghan peace that does not run through diplomatic channels in Islamabad. At a time when both Pakistan and the US are at a major impasse in respect of bilateral relations, Washington and Islamabad are paradoxically both acknowledging that America requires Pakistani assistance in extracting itself from its blood-soaked Afghan quagmire. In this sense, while it is important to listen to what American says regarding Pakistan, observing what America does is all the more important.
The subtext behind this development is that while the India-US partnership shows no signs of doing anything other than expanding, the US realises that no regional power can substituent Pakistan in respect of using its regional clout and drawing on its experience in order to prepare the wider region for a sustainable and just peace. This is all the more apparent as unlike most of his predecessors, Imran Khan is able to articulate Pakistan’s goals and aspirations with clarity and purpose. While the US continues to disagree with many of these goals and aspirations, they are nevertheless being heard in a loud and clear fashion in Washington as they are throughout the wider world.
While the United States needs India in order to try and retard the progress of China’s peaceful initiatives in south Asia, the US continues to obsessively court and at times even patronise India in order to draw a once putatively non-aligned nation into the US orbit. By contrast, while stern and frank words fly between Washington and Islamabad, the rhetoric is but a mask that can scarcely hide the fact that even in the worst of times in respect of bilateral relations, the US is learning that Pakistan’s assistance in the wider Afghan peace process is invaluable and therefore utterly necessary.
Thus, while Pakistan’s economic partnerships with China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar will come to be vastly more important than the “begging cup” style of exploitative economic relations the US once had with Pakistan – when it comes to America’s goals in Afghanistan, there is simply no substitute for Pakistan’s positive role in the peace process.
The US leader’s acknowledgement that he looks forward to meeting with Imran Khan is proof positive that Trump respects those who speak honestly, even when they do so from a position that refuses to bend under US pressure. While Pakistan-US relations will certainly present both sides with challenges over the course of 2019 and beyond, Imran Khan has tamed an American tiger that once treated Pakistan with passive aggressive disdain. Now the US knows that if it is to receive the assistance from Pakistan that it requires because of its failed war in Afghanistan, Washington will need to approach Pakistan’s leadership with the respect it has clearly earned.