Prime Minister Imran Khan was accompanied by Pakistan’s Army Chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, when he went to the United States on July 20 to meet President Donald Trump at his invitation. The general had to accompany him and take part in the discussions to “legitimise” them. (The widely held view is that the army really rules Pakistan.)
The meeting went unexpectedly well as both leaders abandoned their well-known loose-tongued aggression and agreed on getting together on Afghanistan to help the United States get out of that country. It was clear that Washington believed that Pakistan could get the Afghan Taliban to settle with the Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul while controlling half of Afghanistan. Its unblocking of $1.2 billion aid to Pakistan clearly signalled this optimism.
The Pakistan-US thaw was coming, mainly because Pakistan, driven into a corner, was willing to change its policy. Clearly, Trump softened after Pakistan submitted to the fiat of the Forward Action Task Force (FATF) to clean up its act of proxy war and arrested its non-state actors bothering India across the Line of Control in Kashmir. General Bajwa had earlier joined Imran Khan to promote “normalisation” with India through the facility of the Kartarpur Corridor — which President Trump pointedly appreciated — and had talked of developing trade and “connectivity” with India.
Things are panning out in favour of a US-Pakistan thaw. The four-party meeting on the Afghan peace process earlier this month, comprising China, the US, Russia and Pakistan, had come up with a “peace settlement” in Afghanistan that literally ousted India and Iran from the conflict. Reacting to the move on July 14, ex-Indian diplomat MK Bhadrakumar wrote that India has lost the Afghan proxy war: “In a regional setting, it also signifies that Pakistan has inflicted a heavy defeat on India in the decade-old proxy war in Afghanistan.”
For Pakistan, Trump’s decision to declare the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) as terrorist came as an unexpected gesture despite there being a pro-Free Balochistan lobby in the US Congress. Bhadrakumar’s reference to “proxy war” pointed to this development. (Pakistan holds a naval officer of India, accusing him of being a secret agent orchestrating terrorist acts in Balochistan.) Trump also jolted India by accusing it of not opening the Indian economy enough for American trade and threatened to clamp new tariffs on Indian exports to America. New sanctions on Iran also affected Indian trade with Iran. It was forced to stop buying Iranian oil and spend less on its Chabahar Port project. India has also come to the conclusion that Chabahar must be downgraded and has decided to reduce its allocation to the deep-sea port by two-thirds: From Rs 150 crore to Rs 45 crore.
Surprisingly, Trump has also offered to facilitate India-Pakistan normalisation of relations through a resolution of the Kashmir issue. He said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had requested him to play this role; and Imran Khan immediately accepted it although it is yet unclear how Trump can walk into a strictly bilateral dispute, unless India and Pakistan decide to become normal neighbours.
As the revisionist state, Pakistan realises it has to do most of the changing. After the Pulwama crisis which led to an air skirmish — the first dogfight in 48 years between India and Pakistan — it returned the captured Indian pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman, to India. It can make another gesture of seeking peace with India through the return of Kulbhushan Jadhav. The question is: Does it want a real normalisation?
India and Pakistan should not discuss Kashmir. They have done it through their bureaucrats a number of times and the results have been disappointing. This “discussion” encourages conflict to which there is no end. The world is disturbed by the action India has taken in Kashmir and what it is doing to its Muslims in the rest of the country through cow vigilantes. The world, however, doesn’t want Pakistan to grab Kashmir.
The world knows that Pakistan is helpless in the face of its own internal lack of sovereignty vis-à-vis its non-state underworld of “jihad”. It is trying to “reform” its 32,000 madrassas that nurse youths with no real function within Pakistan, threatening it today more than India. It needs India’s help to ensure its own survival and that help can come only through normalisation of relations, through connectivity “with” and “through” Pakistan.
The Pakistan Army realises that Pakistan is now threatened on its western border. It is building a wire fence on the Durand Line and wants to cool its eastern border which means it must end its irredentist approach to the Kashmir issue. The eastern border can be cooled by opening up trade and investment with India, allowing it to reach Afghanistan and the Central Asian states through a road network that will transform Pakistan just as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor promises to do; and which persuades China to pressure Pakistan to seek normalisation with India. The leaders involved are “transformational”, too, albeit with their negative aspects.
Imran Khan and Narendra Modi can transform South Asia and make it prosperous, or doom it through conflict.
(The writer is consulting editor, Newsweek Pakistan)