On his return to Islamabad after his three day trip to the United States with his army top brass and intelligence chief, Prime Minister Imran Khan said that he felt like he had just won the World Cup, a natural expression of jubilation for a Captain of the Pakistan team, which had won the World Cup. The statement had a certain poignancy as he was no more a cricketer and Pakistan had just crashed out of the World Cup tournament, 2019. The question is whether he accomplished enough during the visit to justify his sense of satisfaction after the visit, particularly since he did not receive a warm welcome on arrival. His agenda was replete with difficult issues, such as his country’s pathetic economic situation, suspension of US assistance for fighting terrorism, problems with India and the situation in Afghanistan and he had a formidable counterpart in President Donald Trump with the uncertainties of tweet diplomacy.
Clearly, Imran Khan’s priority was Afghanistan, but like everything else, it was to counter India that he focussed on Afghanistan to assist Trump to meet his requirement to withdraw from Afghanistan. For the US, which had gone to war in Afghanistan to eliminate terrorism, it is ironic that it is working on forging a coalition in which the Taliban is a partner. Reports indicate that at a meeting in Beijing, Taliban has agreed to work with the Afghan Government through Pakistan. Imran Khan has explained that his Afghan policy is meant to avoid Pakistan being sandwiched between India and Afghanistan. He admits quite candidly that, without Taliban, India and Afghanistan would team up against Pakistan and Pakistan can gain strategic depth only if it has influence in Afghanistan. In the process, Khan hopes to restore the old glory to Pak-US relations by serving immediate US interests.
Imran Khan made his strategy plain: "We have to make a 'New Pakistan'. We are confident that Pakistan will become a great country as thought by great poet and philosopher, Allama Iqbal but this won't happen by begging. Neither have I bowed before anyone nor will I let Pakistanis bow before anyone. Countries who have become great have never begged for anything.”
Trump’s explicit statement in the presence of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in Washington that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had invited him to mediate or arbitrate between India and Pakistan on Kashmir created a flutter, which did not die down even after India and the US made it clear that there was no truth in the claim.
Whether it was a habitual expression of post truth or an open offer to India and Pakistan, even Imran Khan could not have believed it. But Trump clearly was resorting to a lie to gladden Khan’s heart.
Mediation between India and Pakistan is a dream of all those who aspire to win a Nobel Prize for Peace, as anyone who can find a formula to end the stand-off between the two nuclear armed neighbours is a sure winner of the coveted honour. But after the Tashkent fiasco, in which India lost Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, who was stressed out under pressure from the mediators to make concessions to Pakistan, we have decided that no third party involvement will be permitted.
This was further strengthened by the Shimla Agreement, which stipulated that neither side shall internationalise bilateral issues.
But despite all these, several world leaders, particularly Secretaries General of the United Nations and US Presidents have repeatedly expressed willingness to mediate between India and Pakistan. While Pakistan encourages these moves, India has categorically rejected them. Taking India’s sensitivities into account, world leaders now say that they are willing to use their good offices if both the parties agree. The outright claim made by Trump that India had actually asked him to mediate between India and Pakistan was meant to indicate the new US slant towards Pakistan on the Kashmir issue. To make a political point, Trump does not mind telling a lie.
We must admit that many countries genuinely misunderstand the Indian position because we tend to brief them whenever there are terrorist attacks or major incidents on the border and urge them to impress upon Pakistan the need to abandon cross border terrorism as a policy and to establish peace in South Asia. We did not deny it when Trump claimed that it was his efforts, which had led to the release of Abhinandan Varthaman. We claimed that the release was on account of India’s increased diplomatic clout and it was contrasted with the indignities meted out to Indian soldiers at the time of the Kargil war.
Visiting Pakistan Prime Ministers in Washington are known to have only India on their agenda. Senator Jesse Helms, as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate, introduced the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto to the Senate as “Prime Minister of India” after an hour long conversation with her in his chamber. When the whole House burst into laughter, Helms apologised and said, “It is entirely her fault. During our long conversation, she spoke only about India and not a word of Pakistan.” Bhutto was visibly embarrassed. It is quite possible that Imran Khan did the same to Donald Trump.
Imran Khan was desperate to restore US assistance to fight terrorism, which was cut off by the Trump administration on the plea that Pakistan had not taken any stern action against terrorism and that it was diverting funds to other activities, including terrorist operations. Khan revealed, as a testament of faith, that it was the ISI which had informed CIA that Osama bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad. But Trump was quite clear that the assistance will not be resumed till concrete action was taken against terrorism. Khan went to the extent of saying that there were thousands of terrorists in Pakistan and he did not need them anymore. The time for resumption of assistance may soon come when Pakistan delivers on Afghanistan by bringing a terrorist group into a new Government in Afghanistan. Imran Khan may not have brought the “World Cup” home, but he may have reached the finals in his game with Donald Trump. It remains to be seen whether the US-Pakistan honeymoon will last beyond an Afghan settlement.