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Imran Khan visits Trump’s White House amid hopes for a reset in U.S.-Pakistan ties

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan attends a session of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Kyrgyzstan in June. (Alexei Druzhinin/AP)

ISLAMABAD — When Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan arrives at the White House on Monday for his meeting with President Trump, the leaders are expected to discuss counterterrorism, defense, energy and trade. But many in Pakistan’s capital hope the visit accomplishes something more: a reset in Islamabad-Washington ties.

Khan’s first visit to Washington as Pakistani premier comes amid a chill in the allies’ relationship. The two first-term leaders have sparred over social media, and Trump last year suspended $300 million in aid to Pakistan over what the U.S. government said was Pakistan’s failure to crack down on militancy within its borders.

In what was seen as a move motivated by Khan’s visit, police in Pakistan on Wednesday arrested Hafiz Saeed, a U.S.-designated terrorist who has lived openly in the country on and off for years. Trump praised the arrest on Twitter.

Pakistan arrests top militant figure ahead of prime minister’s visit to U.S.

The White House visit “offers the leadership of both countries new opportunities towards resetting the bilateral relationship,” Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s foreign minister, said in a speech in Islamabad on Tuesday.

The United States and Pakistan have been allies in the war on terrorism since 2001, when the United States launched military operations in Afghanistan to root out al-Qaeda militants and overthrow the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks.

Last year, after announcing the aid cuts to Pakistan, Trump took to Twitter to accuse Pakistan of being “just one of many countries that take from the United States without giving anything in return.”

Khan hit back that the Trump administration was “making Pakistan a scapegoat for their failures” and emphasized the human and economic sacrifices that his country has made in supporting the U.S.-led war on terrorism. He said his country had suffered 75,000 casualties and lost more than $120 billion.

In Pakistan, the U.S. invitation is viewed as an opportunity to repair relations.

“The U.S.-Pakistan engagement has long needed a shake-up,” wrote Moeed Yusuf, a Washington analyst, in Dawn, a leading Pakistani daily. “Khan and Trump, both of whom pride themselves for going after the seemingly impossible, are the right people to provide it.”

Others are less optimistic.

“The U.S. presidential invitation is meant to acknowledge Pakistan’s role vis-a-vis the Afghan peace process and to say thanks,” said Muhammad Amir Rana, an Islamabad-based analyst. It is likely that multiple issues will be discussed, he said. But “I don’t see something very big coming out of this trip,” he added.

Some also view it as an acknowledgment of Pakistan’s positive role in the peace talks in neighboring Afghanistan.

The Trump administration sought Pakistani assistance last year to bring Taliban leaders to the negotiating table. Seven rounds of peace talks have been completed, and there are signs of progress.

Trump asks Pakistan for help with Afghan peace

Qureshi, the Pakistani foreign minister, in Islamabad emphasized his government’s intent “to work for broader engagement from Afghanistan to bilateral economic and trade cooperation to peace and stability in South Asia.”

Many bilateral issues will be on the table Monday, including an expansion of trade, commercial ties and energy cooperation. The United States has worked for years with Pakistani institutions to steer millions of dollars into the country’s energy sector.

Khan may also seek Trump’s support for the resumption of peace talks with Pakistan’s nuclear rival, India.

The United States “has always been an active player whenever tensions have escalated between Pakistan and India,” Qureshi said. “We hope that the leadership of the two countries in Washington can agree on the imperative of resuming a sustained and result-oriented dialogue.”

Pakistan, mired in debt and inflation, cracks down on corruption

Another issue probably on Khan’s agenda is to avoid the financial blacklisting of his country.

In 2018, an international financial watchdog placed Pakistan on its “gray list” for deficiencies in its policing of money laundering and terrorism financing. 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.

Regardless of what is accomplished, many see the meeting as an important first step toward mutual recognition. 

“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.

“Both sides know they need each other.”

Gerberg reported from Kabul.

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