A pilgrimage to the City of Magnificent Intentions

July 28, 2019

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to the US ended on a note of hope. But Pakistan must not fall into the trap of wishful thinking or declare victory too soon. The hard work begins now

A pilgrimage to the City of Magnificent Intentions

Pakistani politicians make regular pilgrimages to Washington DC, the US capital that British novelist Charles Dickenscalled the City of Magnificent Intentions in his 19th century travelogue, American Notes.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, who knows the US well, mainly as a fertile area for fundraising for his cancer hospital, journeyed here for a short visit to reset the fractured relationship with the most powerful country in the world. Though he left with a redirected relationship, we must await concrete actions to rectify the wrongs that President Donald J Trump had identified in his New Year tweet of 2018 or the subsequent economic and military sanctions imposed on Pakistan. In the prime minister’s words, he came seeking "understanding" and nothing else.

This might have been a polite camouflage for a lack of preparation for this important visit. No joint statement emerged at the end of the visit. Some ‘advance payments’ were made prior to Khan’s visit -- by the US in designating Baloch Liberation Army as a global terrorist group and by Pakistan in arresting UN-designated terrorist, Hafiz Saeed, as well as extending support for the intra-Afghan peace talks favoured by the Americans.

Khan received a friendly, perhaps even an adulatory, audience at the White House from his charming hosts, Donald and Melania Trump. He made his case forcefully but respectfully. Yet, in net terms, the US may have got more out of the visit than Pakistan, at least for now.

The principal American topic was Afghanistan, the lens through which the US has viewed Pakistan since 2001. Pakistan again committed itself to using its influence with the Taliban leadership through a direct meeting the prime minister shall hold with them on his return to Pakistan. There was also the prime minister’s promise to try to get American hostages released from their captors in Afghanistan. He extended further help to America to "extricate" itself from Afghanistan, a word used by President Trump to differentiate himself from his predecessors who got embroiled in a "necessary war" in the region that has become an "endless war".

Three significant meetings at the White House may define a turning point: first, a one-on-one between Khan and Trump, second in a small group involving close advisers (the Pakistani side included the foreign minister, the DG ISI and the army chief), third a working lunch with selected ministers, the two military representatives, and ministerial rank advisers, including the advisers on finance and commerce.

The reset achieved during this visit was defined as an early, opening act by senior Pakistani officials. The broken relationship between these unequal partners came under discussion in both civil and military dialogues. But, progress will be measured at later stages, under the aegis of a team that will coordinate follow-up actions. Unless the whimsical decision making of President Trump veers off course yet again or PM Khan faces unhappiness at home for giving more than he got from the renewed relationship.

At every juncture, the PM resorted to well-targeted praise for his hosts. This helped transform what could well have been a disastrous first meeting with a volatile and thin-skinned American president into an apparent love-fest.

The portents were good before the visit. A statement of intent from the White House laid out objectives for the visit. Trump wanted a roadmap for strengthening "cooperation with Pakistan on issues that are vital to the peace, stability, and prosperity of the South Asia region". The agenda was to cover counterterrorism, defence, energy, and trade. He also wanted to "build stronger economic and trade ties with Pakistan" to benefit both partners, while making "progress on core United States security concerns".

Pakistan favoured trade not aid. But there was no mention of seeking better tariff rates for Pakistani exports to the US or help in moving exports up the value chain. Khan raised the Kashmir issue in the context of regional connectivity and stability both at the White House and the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).

Trump said he had been asked by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to help resolve the Kashmir issue, a claim the Indian Ministry of External Affairs promptly rebutted. But not the Indian prime minister. The Trump statement was huge. It is the first time an American president has volunteered to step into the Kashmir issue.

The military representation from Pakistan was to help convey to the Americans that the prime minister’s team was united in its views, unlike earlier prime ministers who often used their American pilgrimages to complain privately about the military and seek the US help in staving off coups or military pressure. Cynics at home painted this military presence as a means of keeping close tabs on the civilians. But, from all appearances, the military leaders kept to themselves and met separately with their counterparts at the Pentagon, except at the White House, where the army chief was a prominent participant. Interestingly, the US Secretary of State and the National Security Adviser were both absent from the White House exchanges, although the Secretary of State did call on the PM later on.

At every juncture, the PM resorted to well-targeted praise for his hosts. This helped transform what could well have been a disastrous first meeting with a volatile and thin-skinned American president into an apparent love-fest.

The PM also used his short visit to connect with a massive community gathering funded by an expatriate businessman who spent around $500,000 to rent the Capital One Arena, home to rock concerts and sports events in the heart of the capital. A campaign-style rally to a largely sympathetic and partisan audience of more than 20,000 created great energy and may have helped impress his host at the White House the next morning. Further meetings with businessmen, potential investors, and the Pakistan Caucus on Capitol Hill put new energy into the hitherto flagging relationship. Importantly, he reached out to the Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a critical contact in light of the upcoming elections.

As further work is done in the trenches on the issues raised during this get-to-know-you-better meeting, Pakistan has an opportunity to identify champions for its cause on the Capitol Hill and in the administration. It also has the opportunity to build better relations with think tanks in the US by encouraging Pakistani business houses to invest in such long-term investment vehicles. It will need to live up to its stated and implied promises in order to get the US to reopen the halted financial flows and blocked training and equipment for the military. Importantly, Pakistan needs to keep the US president engaged with the region and Pakistan.

Indeed, President Trump failed to follow-up on his fulsome praise on the day of his meeting with PM Khan with any further tweets the day after. He had already become absorbed with the upcoming congressional testimony of his legal nemesis, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, on Wednesday, July 24.

The visit ended on a note of hope. But Pakistan must not fall into the trap of wishful thinking or declare victory too soon. The hard work begins now. How Pakistan fixes its economy and improves its relations in the neighbourhood will help shape public opinion in the US and the world at large. America, currently resembling a global Gulliver, is still finding its way around a complex world under a president who talks big, shoots from the hip, and is easily offended. He has also become the master of the zigzag in foreign policy.

Prime Minister Khan would do well to remember his own objectives of seeking honesty and respect in this and other relationships around the world. That may engender reciprocity from friends abroad, even unequal and seemingly fickle partners like the US. Both countries need each other at this critical juncture and for the longer term.


The writer is a distinguished fellow at the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council, a leading non-partisan think tank in Washington DC. He is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its army, and the Wars Within, and the forthcoming The Battle for Pakistan: A Bitter US Friendship and a Tough Neighbourhood.

A pilgrimage to the City of Magnificent Intentions