A Diplomatic Coup? Assessing Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Visit to Washington

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to the American capital has been largely hailed as a significant diplomatic victory for the cricket player-turned-politician.  Visiting from Sunday, July 21 to Wednesday, July 24, the Pakistani leader’s event-packed schedule solidified the revived importance of Pakistan in Washington’s South Asia strategy. 

Years of increasing strain between Islamabad and Washington have not been conducive to bilateral cooperation on such aspects as counterterrorism.  The 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani compound (and killing of bin Laden) under the Obama administration was a considerable nadir in relations between the two countries.  Pakistan’s foreign ministry was slow to react to the event, reflecting both shock and embarrassment over being host to the world’s most wanted man.  It seemed to confirm that Pakistan was a magnet for international terrorist groups and further complicated Washington’s counterterrorism strategy in the region.  Last year, President Donald Trump railed against the Pakistani government for its inability or unwillingness to clamp down on terrorist activity in the country, going so far as to cut off military and security assistance.

Beyond the realm of terrorism, US-Pakistan relations have also been strained because of growing ties between Islamabad and Beijing.  Historic partners since the Cold War, Pakistan and China have expanded their cooperation to trade, infrastructure, and investment.  A component of China’s global Belt and Road Initiative, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a critical element of China’s economic strategy.  The United States has opposed the CPEC that aims to link China to the key strategic Pakistani port of Gwadar.  In the eyes of Washington—and New Delhi—the CPEC is seen as a “geo-strategic and security maneuver, instead of an economic or development initiative.” 

However, despite these ongoing challenges in US-Pakistan relations, PM Khan’s visit is hoped to mark the start of a reset in relations. 

PM Khan began his visit by giving a speech at Washington, DC’s Capital One Arena that Sunday afternoon.  Tens of thousands of people attended, mostly overseas Pakistanis.  (The full speech is available on YouTube here).  During the speech, PM Khan stated, “We will change the system so that it runs on merit, and where everyone gets an opportunity to prosper,”—perhaps as a reassurance to Pakistanis of a brighter economic future in the midst of slowing economic growth.  He also noted the importance of rooting out corruption, an endemic problem due to the entrenched power and influence of the Pakistani military. 

The day after, the Pakistani Prime Minister visited the White House.  Accompanying the Prime Minister were Foreign Minister Mahmood Qureshi, Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and ISI head General Faiz Hameed, a signal that an easing of relations is in sight.  At a press conference in the Oval Office, PM Khan appeared at ease and both leaders presented an amiable atmosphere.  President Trump was laudatory in his assessment of the Pakistani leader, describing him as, “the very popular and, by the way, great athlete—one of the greatest—but very popular Prime Minister of Pakistan.”  Furthermore, Trump said, “To be honest, I think we have a better relationship with Pakistan right now than we did when we were paying that money (referring to the $1.3 billion in military aid that was cancelled).  But all of that can come back, depending on what we work out.”

During the press conference, however, Trump’s comments on India and Afghanistan became the main focus of attention, both during and afterwards.  When asked about the Kashmir issue, Trump responded by saying, “So I was with—I was with Prime Minister Modi two weeks ago, and we talked about this subject.  And he actually said, ‘Would you like to be a mediator or arbitrator?’  I said, ‘Where?’  He said, ‘Kashmir’...And I think they’d like to see it resolved.  And I think you’d like to see it resolved.  And if I can help, I would love to be a mediator.” 

While Trump’s statements were ignored or not scrutinized at the time, India foreign ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar denied that PM Modi brought up the issue at the G-20 summit in Japan. India has never been interested in US mediation, for such issues as Kashmir, preferring to resolve disputes with Pakistan bilaterally. Such comments come at a time of increasing frictions between Washington and New Delhi, particularly in terms of trade. On the other hand, Pakistan views trilateral mediation with great favor, as Islamabad has more leverage vis-à-vis the United States than with India.

In terms of Afghanistan, Trump caused another diplomatic furore when he described his approach to ending the conflict in the country.  When speaking to the journalists, he said, “If we wanted to fight a war in Afghanistan and win it, I could win that war in a week.  I just don’t want to kill 10 million people.  Does that make sense to you?  I don’t want to kill 10 million people.  I have plans on Afghanistan that, if I wanted to win that war, Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the earth.  It would be gone.  It would be over in – literally, in 10 days.  And I don’t want to do – I don’t want to go that route.”  This naturally caused great concern in Afghanistan and its government sought a clarification on the matter.  This comes just weeks after President Trump threatened the obliteration of Iran.

Such comments also boost Pakistan’s diplomatic role in the Afghan peace process by reducing the issue of Afghanistan into either a rapid escalation of conflict or a Pakistan-assisted peace process. This will not only empower the Pakistani Prime Minister but also the country’s military and intelligence establishment, which hold the true reins of power.

Despite a testy exchange between the US president and journalists, PM Khan expressed a calm and collected demeanor. 

During the rest of the week, PM Khan visited the Pakistani ambassador’s residence to discuss issues with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and also met with various Pakistani and Pakistani-American businesspeople and investors at the embassy.

PM Khan also participated in other public events, such as speaking at the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace think tank.  (The full conversation can be found here).  Among the issues he discussed were how he became Prime Minister, the challenges of governing Pakistan, and Pakistan’s relations with its neighbors.  Later in the day, he met with the United States Congress on Capitol Hill, seen conversing with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.   

In assessing the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington, only time can tell.  With reset US-Pakistan relations still in their infancy and financial assistance to Pakistan yet to be realized, whether the South Asian country can fully recover and be set on a positive trajectory are open questions.  However, the visit can be regarded as a major step in moving towards a warming of ties between Washington and Islamabad.  Furthermore, PM Khan’s performance during the visit was commendatory.  This visit was also significant because Pakistan is now viewed by Washington as a critical partner in the Afghan peace talks.  Winning praise from both Pakistanis and outside observers, PM Khan has certainly earned his diplomatic credentials and can serve as a model and beacon of hope for hundreds of millions of fellow Pakistanis. 

Photo Credit:: The White House/Flickr