Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan this morning is due to walk into the Oval Office for a meeting with President Donald Trump. Also expected to be there will be Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, the head of the Pakistan Army. Protocol may demand that President TrumpDonald John TrumpLiz Cheney: ‘Send her back’ chant ‘inappropriate’ but not about race, gender Booker: Trump is ‘worse than a racist’ Top Democrat insists country hasn’t moved on from Mueller MORE speaks principally to Khan, but the most important person on the Pakistan side will be Gen. Bajwa.
Historically, Pakistani prime ministers govern but it is the country’s military-bureaucratic elite that rules. Outright military control has been tried, but ends up tarnishing the army. The imperfect, but better, solution is a cooperative prime minister.
The Oxford-educated Khan previously was famous for his successful cricketing career. He was the military’s favorite in elections a year ago, although his power base was, and still is, comparatively small. He would have been reminded of his own vulnerability last week when his immediate predecessor as prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, was arrested at a traffic stop by the civilian National Accountability Bureau for questioning about possible corruption.
The Washington Post reported the likely agenda for today’s meeting as “counterterrorism, defense, energy and trade.” The first, which will dominate, is code for Afghanistan, from where President Trump would dearly like to bring home the 14,000 American service personnel before the 2020 election. The stars are in partial alignment — Qatar-hosted peace talks with the anti-government Taliban are continuing, and Khan recently hosted his Afghan counterpart, Ashraf Ghani, in Islamabad.
The elephant in the room is the Pakistan Army, which views a stable Afghanistan as a strategic opportunity for its arch rival India, and therefore a policy option requiring to be undermined to avoid encirclement.
Oh, to be a fly on the wall of the Oval Office! Khan’s likely talking point is that Pakistan has suffered more from Islamic extremism than other country. But, awkwardly, Pakistan also has given sanctuary to more than a few such extremists. Khan likely prefers to forget his 2011 comment that the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy SEALs was “cold-blooded murder.” The perhaps temporary fix: Pakistan’s detention last week of Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, previously subjected to only bouts of house arrest.
Confused? The Pakistan military’s principal focus remains on India through the lens of Kashmir, the divided province where Indian security forces tightly control the local Muslim population and where, in the skies above, the Pakistan Air Force downed an Indian MiG in February. In Islamabad, or rather the neighboring city of Rawalpindi, the home of the Pakistan military, Afghanistan is a mere sideshow to the main Indian foe.
Another person to watch, either in the Oval Office or in the Cabinet Room, where an immediate follow-on bilateral meeting is planned, is the director-general of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), an organization for which the term “the dark side” is inadequate. Gen. Faiz Hameed has been head of ISI only since June, and has a reputation as a hard-liner — his predecessor lasted a mere eight months. He likely will say little.
President Trump has several cards to play, one of which may be Pakistan’s erstwhile nuclear maverick, Dr. A.Q. Khan, who was responsible for selling nuclear bomb technology to Iran and North Korea and now lives in retirement in Islamabad. But the best point of pressure is probably Pakistan’s dreadful financial situation. Khan has shaken his begging bowl with some success in front of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi. Nevertheless, he still needed to accept a tough deal with the International Monetary Fund.
That could all fall apart if Pakistan does not repair deficiencies in its policing of money-laundering and terrorist financing, which has put it on the gray list of the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force.
Even the Saudi and Emirati generosity may be at risk. Supposedly showing budgetary restraint, Khan and his entourage flew by commercial airline to Washington. But he chose Qatar Airways, a decision almost certain to irritate Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, who have been imposing an economic and diplomatic blockade of their Gulf neighbor since 2017. Khan’s likely logic was short-term: to secure favorable deliveries of Qatari gas, needed to keep the lights on in Pakistani cities.
An additional optic, which also hasn’t played in his favor, was his arrival at Dulles International Airport on Saturday. To the amusement of the Indian media, Khan and his entourage completed the last few hundred yards of their journey on one of the airport’s mobile lounges (as the rest of us have to).
Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He formerly was a BBC and Financial Times correspondent in Islamabad. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.