When President Trump meets Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan at the White House on Monday, the United States and Pakistan will seek to repair their strained ties. Recent testimony from a State Department official called the relationship with Pakistan among the “most complex and most consequential” for the United States.
The visit comes against a backdrop of two years of high tensions between the two countries. In 2017, Trump put Pakistan “on notice” for supporting the Afghan Taliban. Trump announced aid reductions and threatened targeted sanctions — but the administration gradually walked back its threats. Khan’s visit to Washington suggests that the tensions are down.
The U.S.-Pakistan huddle this week will involve tense discussions — and the two leaders are not known for sticking to the script. Khan’s entourage includes the chiefs of Pakistan’s powerful military and intelligence service, who will be critical participants. Five major issues will probably dominate the conversation:
1. Afghanistan — The United States has long seen Pakistan as a major thorn in the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, but also a potential help in the U.S. exit strategy. U.S. policymakers consider Pakistan’s support to the Afghan insurgency a key obstacle to militarily defeating the Afghan Taliban.
But Trump wants a quick, negotiated exit from Afghanistan. And policymakers believe Pakistan may be able to help persuade the Afghan Taliban to agree to a settlement with the United States and the Afghan government.
From the Pakistani perspective, the U.S. presence in the region has elevated the status in Afghanistan of archrival India. This has been a long-standing concern, and a purported rationale for why Pakistan backs the Afghan insurgents.
Going forward, the United States wants Pakistan to increase its support for the ongoing Afghan peace process. It will ask for more pressure on the Afghan Taliban leadership to announce a cease-fire and an intra-Afghan peace process. For its part, Pakistan will seek U.S. guarantees against Indian influence in Afghanistan — and a reassurance that India will not get a seat at the talks.
2. Counterterrorism — The United States remains concerned about al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and their affiliates in South Asia. As the U.S. government considers a post-U.S. Afghanistan, the United States will hope that Pakistan will step up the bilateral cooperation against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The reliability of the cooperation will probably come up in these meetings, given the bad blood from Osama Bin Laden hiding in Pakistan, as well as Pakistan’s support for the Haqqani network. U.S. intelligence officials will hope to emulate a secret collaboration similar to the U.S. drone war, which was effective in degrading and disrupting al-Qaeda.
The United States also remains concerned about Pakistan-based terrorist groups carrying out violence in India. It will push Pakistan to fold the jihadi infrastructure spawned by anti-Indian terrorist groups. The United States will seek prosecution of the accused in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which Pakistani authorities have evaded.
Pakistan will push for its own counterterrorism priorities. It will hope that the United States will continue to target Afghanistan-based extremist leaders attacking Pakistan, such as the leadership of various Pakistani Taliban factions. Pakistan will also push the United States for a further crackdown on the Baluch separatist movement based in Afghanistan and parts of Europe.
3. Nuclear weapons — U.S. policymakers continue to worry about nuclear weapons in South Asia. The February standoff between India and Pakistan after the Pulwama terrorist attacks in Indian-controlled Kashmir put a spotlight on the risks of conflict escalation between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. During the standoff, Pakistan made veiled public and private threats about using nuclear weapons if the crisis intensified.
The United States has long tried to persuade Pakistan to rein in growth of fissile material and limit tactical nuclear weapons development. And there are other concerns: the potential theft of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons by terrorists, and the range of specific Pakistani missile systems, which can reach Israel.
In the past, Pakistan has refused U.S. demands to tighten its weapons program, pointing to India’s continued nuclear and conventional buildup and U.S. support for Indian defense modernization. But the United States will continue to push, and Pakistan may offer to improve cooperation on managing risks of nuclear terrorism.
4. Economic support — Pakistan’s economy is hurting, thanks to a weak foreign exchange situation, poor taxation, mounting debt and high defense expenditures. A decline in financial inflows, including U.S. aid, has exacerbated the situation. Last month, Pakistan signed up for a tough bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
Pakistan will seek a revival of military and economic aid — as well as U.S. encouragement to multilateral lenders and Arab states to enhance financial support to Pakistan. U.S. policymakers see limiting the country’s access to “largesse of international financial institutions” as a key lever in negotiating with Pakistan.
In recent months, the United States has eased up on efforts to discourage economic support. It didn’t block Pakistan’s request for an IMF loan and reportedly threw its weight behind Pakistan’s request for funds from Arab states. Going forward, the United States will probably pledge to calibrate additional economic support in return for Pakistan holding up its end of the bargain on Afghanistan and counterterrorism.
5. China — The United States sees China as a major challenge in the region. China has been building infrastructure as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, a trade/infrastructure network that passes through Pakistan.
U.S. officials also worry about China’s military cooperation with Pakistan. The possibility that the Chinese might militarize its infrastructure in Pakistan, such as the Gwadar port near the Strait of Hormuz, is of particular concern.
In recent months, the Pakistani leadership has sent signals of skepticism about Chinese investments. The Pentagon has identified these signs as an opportunity for U.S. influence. The United States may look closely at ways to gauge Pakistan’s grievances toward Chinese projects. It will also probe the Pakistani leadership’s calculus on Chinese military hardware and infrastructure buildup in the country.
This high-level U.S.-Pakistan dialogue will be far from straightforward. Trump and Khan share the trait of being unpredictable, which increases the uncertainty in an already difficult conversation.
Asfandyar Mir is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.