ISLAMABAD – U.S. President Donald Trump will host Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan later this month at their first meeting. Officials and analysts in Islamabad hope it could mean a change in often-acrimonious bilateral relations.
While the Trump administration has not made an official announcement, Khan’s five-day visit to Washington will begin July 20 and both sides are in the process of finalizing plans for a White House meeting, a Pakistani official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told VOA.
Khan told a Pakistani television channel on Monday that he plans to travel to Washington this month but he did not share further details.
Tensions in bilateral relations stem from allegations that, despite having received billions of dollars in U.S. financial aid, Pakistan has harbored the Taliban and other militants that plan deadly attacks against U.S.-led foreign troops in Afghanistan and against rival India. Islamabad denies the charges.
Soon after taking office nearly a year ago, Khan got into an argument with Trump on Twitter over the allegations, defending Pakistan’s “unmatched” sacrifices and successes in countering regional terrorism.
“Well, the United States seems to be doing a timely U-turn on their relations with Pakistan, which is primarily Afghanistan-driven. President Trump badly needs a foreign policy triumph for his re-election next year,” said Mushahid Hussain, who heads the Pakistani Senate’s foreign affairs committee.
Hussain noted, while speaking to VOA, that better U.S.-Pakistan ties are needed to promote peace in Afghanistan.
“He [Trump] is trying with North Korea, he’s softened up on China on the trade war, his Middle East deal of the Century is a non-starter. The U.S. now realized that for peace in Afghanistan, normalization with Pakistan is a sine qua non, hence, the overtures to Pakistan and its government,” Hussain observed.
Islamabad takes credit for facilitating an ongoing direct peace dialogue between Washington and the Taliban to promote a negotiated end to the Afghan war. The talks began nearly a year ago and a new round is under way in Qatar.
Both Taliban and American negotiators say they have come close to finalizing a draft text that could pave the way for ending the longest overseas U.S. military intervention.
Michael Kugelman at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center says the Trump-Khan meeting will have a single-issue agenda focused almost exclusively on Afghanistan because getting a peace deal with the Taliban is the biggest goal in South Asia for the U.S.
“I see this Trump-Khan meeting as part of a broader effort by Washington to get Pakistan to intensify its pressure on the Taliban. At first, the U.S. wanted Islamabad to bring the Taliban to the table. Now that it’s at the table, the U.S. wants Islamabad to convince the Taliban to agree to a cease-fire,” Kugelman told VOA.
The Trump administration believes Pakistan can be helpful in that regard, he added.
Expectations for meeting
Analysts in Pakistan are not anticipating anything big to emerge from the first interaction between Trump and Khan, but they note it could still go a long way in improving bilateral ties because both leaders “abhor the status quo” and are “immensely strong” personalities.
The American president has consistently been critical of U.S. involvement in foreign wars while Khan is known for leading anti-war campaigns and vehemently opposing the use of U.S. military power to resolve the Afghan conflict even when his party was the opposition.
“If they are able to strike a chord, and there is ample likelihood that they would, it could effectively mean a turnaround of the U.S.-Pakistan relations,” said former Pakistani diplomat Raoof Hassan.
While speaking to ARY TV on Monday, Khan indicated he would also discuss his concerns over the rising military tensions between the U.S. and Iran, which shares nearly a 900-kilometer border with Pakistan.
“The conflict that is in the making here is neither in our interest nor in the interest of the world. It will have devastating consequences for regional countries, including ours, because it would not be a short-lived war,” Khan warned.
The prime minister noted that only after fighting for more than 17 years in Afghanistan, the U.S. has come to the conclusion that there is no military solution to it so Washington must seek a peaceful resolution of the issue with Tehran.
The U.S. State Department on Tuesday announced that the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) is a terrorist organization for targeting security forces and civilians in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Baluchistan.
Islamabad promptly hailed the move, which analysts say could serve as a “relevant precursor” to turn around bilateral ties in the wake of the upcoming meeting.