Analysis / Strategy

Rekindling Relations: Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Visit to the United States

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s first official visit to the United States from July 21 to 23, 2019, comes on the heels of a four-party meeting on the Afghan peace process—including the United States, Russia, China, and Pakistan—hosted in Beijing, where Pakistan’s “important role” in the peace talks was lauded. After a year and a half of frosty relations between the United States and Pakistan, which saw the cessation of U.S. security assistance to the South Asian country, overtures by the Trump administration indicate a thawing of relations between the on-again, off-again allies.

The State of U.S.-Pakistan Affairs Today

When President Donald Trump announced his new Afghan and South Asia strategy in August 2017, he accused Pakistan of aiding and abetting militant and terrorist groups that targeted the U.S. military in Afghanistan. The U.S. government subsequently cut $900 million worth of security assistance to Pakistan, and pushed for Pakistan’s inclusion on the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) on Money Laundering’s black list for terror financing (it is currently on the purgatorial “grey” list, with final adjudication on its status to take place in October 2019). USAID’s FY 2020 request for Economic Support and Development Funds for Pakistan was just $48 million, a significant cut from $200 million the previous year, indicating a downturn even in development aid. But, as in 1979 at the brink of the Soviet-Afghan war, and in 2001 with the advent of the Global War on Terrorism, Washington once again finds itself needing Islamabad’s cooperation—preferably collaboration—as the former seeks to exit Afghanistan after a costly war effort of nearly two decades draws to an indecisive close.

The Stakes for Pakistan

A window of opportunity has opened for the two countries to rekindle their turbulent relationship, and Prime Minister Khan—and his travel companion, the Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa—will be eager to seize the chance. Prime Minister Khan will be hoping that the optics of the trip will help him gain political respite from domestic tensions, ranging from allegations of media censorship and crackdowns on political activists to increases in inflation rates and creeping doubts around the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). An official trip to the United States is always a major public relations occasion for a national leader, and Imran Khan will be seeking to leverage that opportunity domestically as well as with the Pakistani-American community—he will be addressing the Pakistani diaspora at the 20,000-seat Capital One Arena the evening before his engagement with President Donald Trump.

The prime minister and the general will be striving for the resumption of U.S. security assistance to Pakistan, which would help both political and security matters. A return to the U.S. fold while simultaneously continuing close ties with China will also allow Pakistan the ability to hedge against pressure from both partners and play them off each other for the benefit of Pakistani national interests. In advance of the prime minister’s visit, Pakistani authorities re-arrested militant leader Hafiz Saeed, presumably as a gesture of goodwill and commitment to working with the United States. Although President Trump’s tweet lauding the arrest was met with significant criticism, it is indicative of the thaw in U.S.-Pakistan ties that Islamabad will be seeking to leverage.

Perhaps most importantly, the opportunity to play a role in the Afghan peace process has significant bearing on Pakistani national security. As is often noted by South Asia watchers, the United States will eventually leave Afghanistan, but Afghanistan and Pakistan will continue to be neighbors. It will come as no surprise then that a friendly government in Kabul will be high on Pakistan’s national agenda, and Prime Minister Khan and General Bajwa will strive to ensure that President Trump remains committed to including Pakistan in the ongoing talks.

The Opportunities for the United States

Prime Minister Khan’s visit holds significance for the United States as well. From a great power competition angle, a revitalized relationship with Pakistan would provide a U.S. bulwark to Chinese economic and military influence in the region writ large, particularly as it relates to the CPEC. CPEC is a key part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a series of Chinese loans and investments in infrastructure, trade, and cultural and academic exchanges across about 80 countries. The United States has an opportunity to capitalize on criticism around BRI being a debt trap—indeed, Pakistan is about $21.8 billion in debt to China, most of which is attributed to CPEC—and counter Chinese influence in the region. Pakistan is certainly eager to engage the United States on economic issues, with Prime Minister Khan’s entourage including his trade and investment adviser Razzak Dawood, and finance adviser Hafeez Pasha. However, as mentioned above, a renewed ability for Pakistan to play the United States and China off one another for its own gains may raise some skeptical eyebrows in Washington.

Working “by, with, and through” partners is a key tenet of the U.S. National Defense Strategy, and the opportunity to partner with Pakistan in helping usher through a peace agreement in Afghanistan and allow the United States to exit the drawn out conflict. Although the United States and Pakistan have often been on different pages as to an acceptable end state in Afghanistan, Pakistan has reportedly played a big part in the “substantial” progress in the negotiations with the Taliban, likely contributing to the thawing of relations between Washington and Islamabad. There is great debate in Washington’s policymaking community around Pakistan’s ambitions in Afghanistan, but the ground reality is that Pakistan will always have an existential stake in the region and no amount of U.S. carrots or sticks will change that in an enduring way. Severing U.S. ties with Pakistan would, as history demonstrates, accomplish the opposite of compelling Islamabad to act according to Washington’s interests. By continuing to work by, with, and through Pakistan beyond the Afghan peace process, the United States can ensure that it still has some visibility and leverage over how Pakistan conducts itself in Afghanistan.

Conclusion

Prime Minister Khan’s trip to the United States holds significant stakes for Pakistan and potential opportunities for the United States. Despite the rancor around the U.S.-Pakistani relationship, a rekindling of the bilateral partnership could bring benefits to both sides. With major implications for the Afghan peace process and regional security overall, the meeting between Prime Minister Khan and President Trump will certainly be very closely watched.

Photo by: ISPR Photo Files

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Hijab Shah, "Rekindling Relations: Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Visit to the United States," Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 19, 2019, last modified July 19, 2019, https://defense360.csis.org/rekindling-relations-prime-minister-imran-khans-visit-to-the-united-states/.