Altered state or status quo?

Following a meeting between the US and Pakistan leaders, aimed at easing mutual tensions, Taha Siddiqui addresses the question many are asking: is Washington ready to trust Islamabad again?

This July, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan took his first trip to the United States in an effort to repair the tense relationship between the two countries, which has deteriorated since President Donald Trump took office in 2017.

In an unprecedented move, accompanying PM Khan on the trip to Washington were Pakistan army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and intelligence chief General Faiz Hameed. This led many people to question who was actually leading the trip – Khan or the powerful Bajwa, who is widely believed to run the country from the shadows.

Pakistan and the US have not been on friendly terms of late, and their mutual distrust has intensified since January 2018, when President Trump took to Twitter to accuse Pakistan of lying and deceiving the United States while receiving billions of dollars in foreign aid. In his tweet, Trump also alleged that Pakistan was harbouring terrorists, adding that America had given $33 billion of financial support to Pakistan since 2002.

Then, in September 2018, relations between the two countries souredfurtherwhen the American government announced a cut of $300m in aid to Pakistan over its perceived failure to tackle militant groups.

Prior to Khan’s visit, Pakistan seemed to be taking steps to ensure that such a conversation was not repeated. It took action against certain militant groups operating on its soil, including the chief of Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hafiz Saeed, who was arrested for terror-financing just days before Khan left for the US. Many believe this was intended to placate the US leadership, and it did exactly that, as Trump once again took to Twitter to claim that the arrest happened because of pressure from the United States. He also referred to Saeed as the so-called mastermind of the Mumbai attacks, although the Lashkar chief has not been detained for involvement in the atrocities.

In 2018 the US announced a cut of $300m in aid to Pakistan over its perceived failure to tackle militant groups

As Khan and Trump met at the White House, a briefing following which seemed to suggest that the American president wanted a fresh start with Pakistan, as he expressed a belief thatthe country was now going to help the US, especially in the task of delivering peace in Afghanistan.

This change of heart within Washington policy circles is due to Washington’s confidence that Pakistan has, in recent months, been instrumental in pushing the Afghan Taliban for a peace dialogue with the US. America knows that Pakistan has wielded significant influence on the militant group since its 2001 ousting from power in Afghanistan, as the Pakistani military provided a safe haven for the Talibanin Pakistan, from where the group continues to operate today.

However, it is too early to say whether theUS-Pakistan relationship has been totally repaired. Trump has frequently insisted that from now on, Pakistan will be helping the US, which can therefore think of resuming its assistance to the country. But this meansWashington will be keeping a close eye on Pakistan, watching to see whether or not it plays the role required of it by the US.

Another area where Washington will be seeking Islamabad’s cooperation in the coming days is Iran, one of Pakistan’s neighbours, as tensions between Tehran and Washington escalate. Khan alluded to this in his US trip, stating in an interview that Pakistan was willing to play a role in the conflict to bring ‘peace’.

However, the most surprising aspect of this trip was President Trump’s offer to mediate in Pakistan and India’s dispute over Kashmir. Although Trump claimed that the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him to act as a mediator, India was swift to deny that any such offer had been made. In light of Trump’s past record of making tall claims that don’t ring true, it is quite possible that Trump misrepresented or even invented the conversation.

But even if Modi did not ask this of Trump, the fact that the US is willing to offer mediation on Kashmir is exactly what Pakistan wants – the internationalisation of an issue whichis a territorial dispute between the two neighbouring countries. India does not want this and has repeatedly said that the Kashmir issue can only be resolved through bilateral talks, which should first address the concern of terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil.

Overall, the Pakistani premier’s Washington visit seems to have borne some fruitalready, given that Khan has been able to elicit a positive response from President Trump.That said, the US leader is known for his erratic and unpredictable behaviour, so it is quite possible that this new-found friendship will not last. More importantly, Khan is believed to bemerely the democratic face of a military-backed government in Pakistan, meaning that the real success of this trip lies in what the Pakistan army chief will be able to achieve behind closed doors.

If, in the coming days, we see a revival of US aid to Pakistan – especially in terms of military assistance –which Pakistan so desperately needs, then it will mean the US is giving Pakistan another chance.

Yet Pakistan has had many previous chances and has never delivered on them, especially when it comes to playing an effective role in eradicating militancy from the regioninvolvement in the atrocities.. Pakistan is not willing to completely give up its policy of having militant proxies on its soil, which focus on Afghanistan, Kashmir, India and even Iran (as recently acknowledged by the Pakistani PM himself in a trip to Tehran) because through these jihadists, the army achieves its foreign and domestic policy aims of remaining relevant and dominant both at home and in the region. Unless the Pakistan army does not give up its proxy policy, the US will be in for another disappointment.

Taha Siddiqui is an award-winning Pakistani journalist living in exile in Paris since 2018. He teaches journalism in France and is writing a book about his homeland. He also manages the digital platform which documents media censorship in South Asia and is a social media strategist for international news and human rights organisations. He tweets @TahaSSiddiqui

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