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July 26, 2019

Strategic windfall


July 26, 2019

Donald Trump and Imran Khan have us all in a spin. What seemed to be an expedient meet-up without associated diplomatic frenzy or driven by an urgent geopolitical development has delivered unprecedented promise.

Where would you hear the leader of a superpower and the world’s largest economy offering to quadruple trade to a teetering economy partner who is barely afloat with borrowed money? The US is Pakistan’s single largest trading partner with the balance heavily in favour of Pakistan. Quadrupling may not be easy because Pakistan’s economy is shrinking without much exportable surplus.

Next, Trump volunteered to ‘mediate’ and ‘arbitrate’ on Kashmir: “If I can help, I would love to be a mediator”. And, “I was with Prime Minister Modi two weeks ago…and he actually said, ‘would you like to be a mediator or arbitrator’… (on) Kashmir”. Modi’s request to Trump to help resolve Kashmir is a bombshell which has shaken the foundations of the Indian establishment which is finding it hard to reconcile with such admission of failure there. As the Indian establishment fights a rearguard action to save its stated position, it stands betrayed before the world as a recalcitrant and regressive force in South Asia. Trump noted the destruction in Kashmir and hence the need to bring the killing to an end there. If that doesn’t make it an international issue making it worthy of an international effort to solve around UN resolutions, what else will? Pakistan sought peace in the region; India is seen to be pushing against it.

Little things: the Dr Afridi affair and Afia Siddiqui, which others wouldn’t touch with a barge pole, or the nuclear capability of Pakistan which IK thought is open to discussion under the larger disarmament rubric were India too to give up its weapons aren’t issues ordinary leaders dare to delve in. IK took these on with aplomb and outstanding clarity. Congressmen spoke of the Durand Line and the critical need to recognize it as a normal border. In IK’s presence the US leadership recognized the Pakistani community’s professional and cultural contribution to the American landscape. Such words have been rarely heard.

The Pakistani PM’s visit was the closest to the traditional warmth fabled during the Seato and Cento days of the 1950s and the 1960s. A working visit was hardly kept as such and extended to private quarters. PM IK met delegates and caucuses and the US secretary of State. This has followed a period of prolonged estrangement and acrimony between the two sides. IK was as forthright as Trump was blunt and outspoken. This visit trumped such reservations and fostered an era of renewed hope and promise. The amazing acceptability of Imran Khan as a popular leader in the US makes for a magical story of which each step seemed to have been exquisitely scripted. Was it for true? Will it mean much? Is there substance below the glitz?

Consider. The Afghan war has run its course and there isn’t much to gain for the US despite a trillion dollars down the tube. Also, there are other challenges beckoning. It also wants to leave behind a semblance of stability which should deny space to newer purveyors of terror. Having the Taliban placated in the peace process and Pakistan acting as a guarantor of sorts is the US’s key to honourable ‘extraction’ from Afghanistan.

Down the line ,‘if’ the situation normalizes in Afghanistan and both Pakistan and Afghanistan can foster a cooperative relationship, the two could obviate the use of Afghan soil by groups such as Isis. The thought goes with the wider US belief that nations long allied with the US and profusely supported by it with money and material need to step up and exercise their capacities to lighten America’s burden. The US hopes Pakistan will help it extricate out of Afghanistan.

One other consideration for the US to accost Pakistan in a surprising twist of strategy emanates from a belief that co-presence of the US there could check China’s unfettered reach in Pakistan. It believes a timely checkmate can stem the wholesale slide of Pakistan into a Dragon and a Bear hug. Pakistan’s geographic uniqueness bordering energy-rich gulf and Central Asia, the energy-gorging markets of India and China, and an agitated Iran sitting on top of Hormuz with the capacity to interfere in international oil shipping, makes the country the most precious real-estate in the world. It can only be ceded to other global players at one’s peril. To let China rule such roost or Russia play free undermines American interests. Even with India inducted as a US proxy against China, the US needs to have its presence in a heating theatre. India is far from the contested space and has little bearing on the evolving dynamics.

Bringing energy, trade and other attractions to a population which is 60 percent below the age of twenty-five is seen as an opportunity. Better for it to keep engaged with the future generation of a rapidly growing population and mould their cultural ethos into a pro-Western mindset from an anti-America slant prevalent in regions where American image is on a slide. These are long-gestation measures and will test both America and Trump’s patience.

Trump’s mention of Kashmir was well considered in view of its importance and sensitivity to Pakistan. Its mention at the outset even before formal talks had begun indicates a serious shift in how the US might proceed with South Asia. It may not provoke India’s displeasure – unless Modi owns up to his request for Trump’s mediation in Kashmir in a more statesman-like shift for the good of the teeming billion and a quarter seeped in poverty and disease – but Trump is testing waters here to bring better sense in South Asia to have both India and Pakistan in its strategic corner as co-inhabitants. Whether Kashmir gets resolved or not, American mediation to influence and modify Indian behaviour towards Pakistan can be the key to a more sustainable regional peace fostering a stable neighbourhood including Afghanistan.

American attempts at normalizing relations between India and Pakistan will not only underline sustainable peace for Afghanistan since it will preclude an unnecessarily competitive urge for the two to garner influence there, it can also be the precursor for a long-term gain in economic activity and social and cultural progress in the region. It will be akin to opening up shut-out avenues of increased trade and trans-regional travel and movement of goods and services benefiting the locked-up people of the region.

Imran Khan’s visit has opened up multi-faceted spaces for Pakistan to capitalize in enhancing its role and relevance in the region. It can forge a path far more complementary than has been its international perception. It is now up to IK’s foreign policy and security teams to allow greater imagination to benefit from such strategic space. It was a highly successful visit; it will need a robust follow-up to make it substantive.

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