US Yatra: Task of great expectations!

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By Wajid Shamsul Hasan

Atlast, it is now officially confirmed that Prime Minister Imran Khan will embark to an official visit to Washington next week at the invitation of President Donald Trump. The first tour as Prime Minister, the Pakistani leader attaches great expectation and this visit to him and his followers is a “Yatra – a task of great expectations and hopes”.

It seems Prime Minister Khan-General Bajwa’s visit later this month to Washington would be as earth shaking event as Columbus’-though for Pakistan it would be coming 70 years late. Political pundits who keep a sharp eye on Pak-US relations are extremely wary on account of the fact our reverse swing innovator would be facing diplomatic master expert in creating uncertainties while dealing with friends and foes alike.

Ever since his assumption of office President Trump, reputed to be bull in a china shop, has continued to blow hot down the neck of Pakistani rulers with a policy of small carrot and longer stick. Had Federal Minister Shaikh

Rashid known the shocking contents of the recent diplomatic controversy that brought seasoned British ambassador -Sir Kim Darroch to Washington back to London for having called Trump Administration as ‘inept’ besides many more diplomatically undiplomatic attributes to him–would not have dared to say that both Trump and IK have many things in common.

More than ten-month long wait for the Trump-IK-Bajwa meeting is worth it since both Washington and Pakistan desperately need it. President Trump knows it too well that without Pakistan’s proactive role negotiations with Taliban would not be possible and would not succeed. On the other hand, Imran Khan as well aware that without American help, there would not be any thaw between India and Pakistan. Besides, it is the Americans who can fulfil Pakistan’s defence needs, replace their rusted hardware since Pakistan’s defence wherewithal has been overly made in America over the last 70 years.

Pakistan’s dependence on Washington as such is understandable. Not only that, our economy too is attached to the American apron strings. Prime Minister Khan had to eat humble pie when he reneged on his pre-and-post election commitment to the nation that he would prefer to commit suicide rather than go to IMF for loan. He is alive and kicking and has allegedly sold out Pakistan’s financial writ to IMF.

Although many analysts accuse President Trump of pursuing dual policy and belligerent posture with Pakistan, there is no doubt he has been most vocal in calling upon Islamabad to do more against terrorism. Whatever-he also acknowledges that it is Pakistan that is worth doing business with especially now under Imran Khan and General Bajwa. Perhaps Pakistan’s positive role in bringing Afghan Taliban on the negotiating table prompted President Trump to rein in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was on war path in February following stand off with Pakistan over Pulwama attack. He used his influence to avert a war that had looked inevitable.

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“Pakistan’s dependence on Washington as such is understandable.

Not only that, our economy too is attached to the American apron strings”

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And lately there are positive signs that with American backing, possibility of resumption of composite dialogue between two nuclear neighbours cannot be ruled out. One must not underestimate the happier tidings like opening of the Kartarpur Corridor between India and Pakistan, connecting the Sikh shrines of Dera Baba Nanak Sahib (located in Punjab, India) and GurdwaraDarbar Sahib Kartarpur in Pakistan.

The most significant gesture is Washington’s declaration of BLA as a terrorist group by the State Department right before Imran/Bajwayatra to Washington. It is an intriguing and interesting development. Major carrot offered by Trump administration to a shaky Pakistani leadership is reassuring. Read in between the lines, it clearly indicates that Pakistan has committed to something serious that is not being disclosing right now. And the expert apprehensions are it may be something related to Iran. Otherwise State Department wouldn’t have proscribed BLA at this juncture. It is a huge gift to Imran Khan and Gen Bajwa and only some Iran-related commitment would have resulted in that gold carrot.

It is also interesting to note as per our past experience, the State Department has always been vocal in expressing its concern on media silencing in Pakistan. This time, however, no condemnation has come of late from them…In my op-ed last week I had mentioned about BLA in US and Hafiz Saeed In Pakistan. I had also referred to American itch to open a new front. They would need Pakistan. Tackling Hafiz Saeed doesn’t primarily concern Americans. That’s more of an India centric issue.

No doubt BLA declaration for Pakistan is a huge gesture of goodwill. It undermines Baloch secessionist movement, it legitimises Pakistan’s stance that it is Indian Raw that is funding BLA movement, indirectly also legitimises issue of Baloch disappearances, legitimises all human rights violations in Balochistan and Fata/Waziristan. It also undermines India’s involvement thereby making it easy for IK to seek negotiations with Delhi sooner than later. It also equally de-legitimises every Baloch separatist effort led by any entity abroad. ?So if we look at it closely, Pakistan benefits immensely from this ban and gains tremendously on the perception levels. And Americans wouldn’t have agreed unless Pakistan hadn’t committed something bigger than just mere Hafiz Saeed or Afghanistan. It is possibly about opening a new front and Pakistan may have committed something on that that would be huge favour to Americans.

Pakistan despite all its instability and foreign policy short-comings has historically resisted participating in any American machinations on Iran but that might just change now.

Analysts rightly interpret Pakistan’s action against Hafiz Saeed as a means that amounts to IK sending a positive message to Modi Sarkar. It pleases Americans as well. The fact that Gen Bajwa is his co-passenger sends a positive signal that he wants stable relation with India.

According to popular belief that Taliban are the hurdle in resolution of Afghanistan, the fact is that Pakistan could bring Talibans on negotiating table with Americans but Islamabad has no clout with pro-Indian Northern alliance and can’t bring it to seek reconciliation. The Northern Alliance won’t subject itself to be an associate with Taliban under any circumstances. Americans know it too. Mind you, the BLA carrot wasn’t being thrown hoping to get Pakistani cooperation on Afghanistan. It really seems to be about its other neighbour.

It was not just a favour to transfer on July 10 US 991 million dollars as first tranche from IMF. It was a gesture complimenting Prime Minister Khan-Gen Bajwa’s trip especially when FATF findings are yet to be made public. Rather, its earlier observations of collaboration between Pakistan and extremist forces through money laundering remain ill-addressed.

Among other important factors regarding General Bajwa travelling with the PM is the fact that the visit has much more to do with defence and Pakistan’s co-operation. It means that Bajwa will discuss the real business including retrieval of CFS funds while his Prime Minister will happily look on.

However, other apprehensions seem to be alarming. Perhaps Pakistan will be asking Americans to take a more lenient view of PTI government’s draconian accountability pursuit against opposition and massive crack down on media in return for any cooperation on Iran that’s why even that standard procedural expression of concern on media blitzkrieg isn’t coming. Let’s hope for the best while preparing for the worst.

(Author is the former High Commissioner of Pakistan to UK and a veteran journalist.)