Skeptical experts and officials in the US are gambling with hypothetical scenarios about how the Trump administration will engage with Imran Khan’s government
Last year in August, President Donald Trump unveiled his South Asia strategy in which he declared the US has changed its approach and how to deal with Pakistan, referring to its "safe havens for terrorist organisations".
On January first this year, the US president tweeted harsh and unsettling words which, since then, have essentially become the core of his administration’s policy playbook towards Pakistan.
The steps that followed have widened the trust gap. The administration first halted financial aid, and recently discontinued the international military education and training programme.
In the interim, both countries imposed restrictions on the movement of each others’ diplomatic staffers.
Experts and officials in the US have been skeptical about the national elections in Pakistan. Knowing that PTI’s Imran Khan has been a long and staunch critic of the US policies and actions, they have gambled with hypothetical scenarios. Some draw similarities between Imran Khan and President Trump. Both are celebrity-turned-politicians; both use unconventional approaches to serious matters; both have little experience in governance, and both are unpredictable. There are chances that both leaders could hit off right away or simply might not get along because of their uncanny personality traits.
The discussions have also focused on Imran Khan’s expected challenges including strengthening the economy and fighting off terrorism. Khan’s grandstanding in the past on various political issues was dismissed by most, arguing his electoral base’s lack of interest in ideological orthodoxy.
"The rhetoric that he used during the campaign is very different from the rhetoric in his acceptance speech right after he won the elections," said Tamanna Salikuddin, senior expert from the United States Institute of Peace, at a panel discussion.
Salikuddin was senior advisor to the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Department of State from 2014 to 2017, and director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the US National Security Council from 2011 to 2013. "It would be interesting to see how and if the Trump administration pays attention or engages with Imran Khan," she said, adding "that would be our first test".
A common element in all discussions was that Imran Khan, like any other civilian leader, may not have the political power to control, dictate or even devise Pakistan’s foreign policy. Most experts maintain the relationship between the two countries has been dominated by the military; and hence the army would not tolerate any interference from political leadership. On the contrary, Khan’s anti-American rhetoric would be beneficial for the military.
Ironically, the National Defense Authorization Act for the next fiscal year that was passed by the US Congress last week has also reduced security aid to a mere $150-million from an amount that was once almost close to a billion dollars. Even though the bill withdraws the continuous and long-standing demand that Islamabad has to do more in counter-terror operations, it hopes the meager amount will help provide a productive framework for continued engagement.
It can be argued that a vast-ranging bilateral relationship has significantly deteriorated. Pakistan is now seen through an outward lens. It is important either because of the peace efforts in Afghanistan or terrorism concerns from India. Besides these two factors, the United States would like to engage with Pakistan only because it fears the country is ‘economically weak’, ‘harbours militants’ and carries ‘nuclear capability’ that could go awry.
The first reaction that came from the State Department after the election results questioned the authenticity of the electoral process. "The United States shares concerns about flaws in the pre-voting electoral process, as expressed by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. These included constraints placed on freedoms of expression and association during the campaign period that were at odds with Pakistani authorities’ stated goal of a fully fair and transparent election," the statement said.
The department clarified the US will look for opportunities to work with the new government representatives to advance mutual goals of security, stability, and prosperity in South Asia.
Meanwhile, Imran Khan also called for a new "mutually beneficial" relationship with the US. "Unfortunately up to now, our relationship has been one-way. America pays Pakistan for fighting its war, which has really damaged Pakistan," Khan said in his televised speech. He advised the US soldiers must leave Afghanistan.
Lately, the US has been eager to seek Pakistan’s help in bringing the Taliban to negotiating table with the Afghan authorities. Stabilising Afghanistan through peace process and mutual cooperation could be the only foreseeable common goal for Khan and Trump.
Pride, pomp, and circumstance aside, Pakistan’s dependence on the US is not over yet. PTI leaders have hinted they would need a package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The severity of the dampness in relations can be gauged by the fact that the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo remarked that any potential IMF bailout for the new government should not provide funds to pay off Chinese lenders. He welcomed the Imran Khan-led government but warned, "Make no mistake. We will be watching what the IMF does. There’s no rationale for IMF tax dollars, and associated with that American dollars that are part of the IMF funding, for those to go to bail out Chinese bondholders or China itself."
Pakistan still needs money to pay its dues and afford the military’s budget. The renewed approach and involvement of credible individuals from the US and Pakistan side might lend hands to each other. Khan’s confidante Asad Umar, who participated in one of the post-election discussions via Skype commented that the PTI government would like a "constructive relationship with the US".
Time magazine suggests that Imran Khan as the new prime minister will politically benefit from continuing his position against the unpopular United States: "The bones of the relationship will suffer. Should the two countries go down this path, bureaucrats in their respective governments will have to work extra hard to keep the relationship intact behind the scenes but with little hope of policy progress."
The level of engagement between the Trump administration and the PTI government is yet to be experienced but, in the meantime, the United States continues to look to Pakistan to take a lead role in bringing peace to the region. "Pakistan’s success is deeply important to the United States," said Alice Wells, South and Central Asia’s principal deputy assistant secretary, in a statement sent out to TNS. "The issues are tough… together both countries could translate shared interests into further action that achieve mutual objectives."