It’s a meeting of two celebrity gadflies turned rabble-rousing, nationalist politicians. Not unlike Trump, Khan, a wildly popular former captain of the Pakistani cricket team, entered politics with a reputation as a licentious “playboy” but won an election in the guise of a patriotic savior. And, not unlike Trump, Khan rose to power by railing against his country’s corrupt political elites. He commands the support of an energized and fanatical base that believes he will make Pakistan great again. On Sunday, Khan appeared at a rally before thousands of cheering overseas Pakstanis at a packed Capital One Arena in Washington, vowing to tackle graft and redeem the nation.
But hopes aren’t so high for his audience with Trump, who — when he has bothered to pay attention to matters in South Asia — has taken a rather tough line on Pakistan. Since relations between both countries started to sour under the Obama administration, there’s been little goodwill in Congress or leading policy circles in Washington for Pakistan. American critics are exasperated with the Pakistani military establishment’s long courtship of a host of radical militant proxies and its seeming inability to fully sever those ties.
In a series of tweets last November, Trump announced cuts in aid to Pakistan, fuming over the vast amount already handed out by the United States, all while terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden lived in a clandestine sanctuary not far from Islamabad, the country’s capital.
Khan fired back his own online salvo, attacking Trump for making Pakistan “a scapegoat” and ignoring the “failures” of nearly two decades of U.S. and NATO-backed military operations in neighboring Afghanistan. Pakistani analysts point to a lack of American appreciation for the thousands of ordinary Pakistanis killed by terrorism, U.S. drone strikes and a bloody counterinsurgency against militant groups within the country.
As a show of good faith, the Pakistanis last week arrested Hafez Saeed, a U.S.-designated terrorist and ringleader of the militant group behind a brazen 2008 terrorist attack in the Indian city of Mumbai. But while the move elicited a self-satisfied Trump tweet, it convinced no one. Saeed has lived openly and with relative impunity for years and has been arrested and released six times prior since 2001; few Indian or U.S. officials believe his detention this time signals any significant shift in policy.
For Trump, the main matter of importance will be Afghanistan. A U.S.-led process to broker peace with the Taliban — and ultimately allow Trump to wind down the U.S. military presence there — has lurched forward fitfully. The United States has needed Pakistani help in bringing the Taliban to the table and hope they can secure further assistance in the coming months. Khan’s delegation includes Pakistan’s army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, as well the head of the country’s notorious military intelligence agency, the ISI, which has a long, shadowy history of ties to militant groups beyond Pakistan’s borders.
“The deeper problem is that the U.S. has no real leverage in Afghanistan. Khan knows this, and so does the Taliban,” wrote Bloomberg columnist Eli Lake. “Trump has made it clear that he wants U.S. forces out of the country, the sooner the better. Even if the Pakistanis can coerce or persuade their Taliban allies to back off until the U.S. leaves, what will stop them from violating a peace agreement after the U.S. is gone?”
But away from Afghanistan, Trump has plenty of leverage. Khan comes to Washington cap in hand. The International Monetary Fund recently approved a $6 billion loan to cash-strapped Pakistan; its mandated austerity measures will be tough for Khan to swallow after campaigning loudly on a platform to create an Islamic welfare state with generous social spending. Pakistan is also chafing from its financial blacklisting by a major international agency last year and may seek recourse from the Trump administration.
“In 2018, an international financial watchdog placed Pakistan on its ‘gray list’ for deficiencies in its policing of money laundering and terrorism financing,” my colleagues explained. “The threat of being blacklisted now looms with a deadline to reform by October. The United States is one of 39 members of the intergovernmental body, known as the Financial Action Task Force.”
“The U.S. realizes that without Pakistan’s role, there will be no end to the war in Afghanistan. On the other hand, Pakistan also needs the U.S. for the revival of its struggling economy. They need the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and Asian Development Bank to improve their economy, and the U.S. has leverage in all of these institutions,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Pakistani analyst based in Lahore, to my colleagues. “Both sides know they need each other.”
Given the complexities and intricacies of the moment, few expect a significant breakthrough from Trump’s meeting with Khan. “I think the best case scenario is a good photo op and a generous word or riff from Trump at a news conference or on Twitter about Pakistan’s help in securing a peace deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan,” said Ahsan Butt, an associate professor of international relations at George Mason University.
But few expect a major reset in ties. Observers, instead, point to the worrying political culture emerging under Khan’s watch. As readers of Today’s WorldView may remember, Khan is believed to be the chosen candidate of Pakistan’s domineering military and may be now doing their handiwork even as he struggles to enact economic reforms.
“Major opposition leaders are in jail; others aren’t allowed in the media. Parliamentarians are arrested on terrorism or drug-trafficking charges and denied bail,” wrote Pakistani novelist Mohammed Hanif in a column last week. “In this new Pakistan, the economy has been practically handed over to appointees from the International Monetary Fund. The price of bread is soaring, and bazaars where the poor do business with the poor are being demolished while barons of the stock exchange get government handouts.”
The “sheen is starting to come off, especially given the awful economy and his government’s mismanagement of it over the last year,” Butt told Today’s WorldView. He added that “the most notable aspects” of the prime minister’s tenure so far have been “the clampdowns on the media, dissent, and political opposition by his government and security agencies and his servile fealty to the latter, probably because they helped bring him to power in the first place."
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