The first one-on-one meeting of Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan and US president Donald Trump in the White House on Monday marked a new beginning in the complicated relationship between the two countries. It’s no secret that the US and Pakistan haven’t seen eye-to-eye over the last few years. Since the Cold War, diplomacy has been strained; events like 9/11 almost stretched them beyond breaking point.
The Trump-Khan meeting this week, however, ushered in the possibility of repairing US-Pakistan relations for good. The meeting seemed to go amicably; Pakistani outlets responded positively. One moment triggered particular debate internationally: the moment when Donald Trump said of the Kashmir dispute, “If I can help, I’d love to be a mediator.”
Of course there is much to be said about Trump’s desire to do deals across the globe. But by offering the US mediation in this 70-year conflict, the president also hinted at a shift in the US’s long-standing policy on Kashmir. Before this, it was accepted without question that the dispute could and should only be solved between India and Pakistan, without mediation.
Indian prime minister Modi, who Trump said had asked for his help, immediately rebuffed the US president’s claims. That’s not surprising, considering that India has rejected third party mediation for decades. The Indian government likes to call Kashmir a bilateral issue, but it has never engaged in properly meaningful dialogue with Pakistan about it. It’s clear that it’s time for a change.
The existing UN Security Council has so far failed to implement its own resolutions of 1948 and 1949 demanding a plebiscite in Kashmir. This is the unfinished business of the India partition agenda of 1947, which gave birth to India and Pakistan. The countries have gone to a full-scale war three times over this relatively small region. Today, Kashmir has emerged as a dangerous flashpoint for nuclear war between two nuclear-armed nations. Dangerous escalations in February of this year almost pushed the two countries to the brink.
Considering that Kashmir now has the potential to trigger nuclear conflict — something which would have widespread consequences for the entire continent and, indeed, the world — it simply cannot remain a bilateral issue. Climate scientists and human rights activists have spoke of their grave concerns about the disastrous consequences of nuclear war that could kill millions and adversely affect billions on this planet. Trump won the hearts of 200 million Pakistanis when he offered mediation on Kashmir, which is the root cause of all tensions between India and Pakistan.
It is absolutely not in the national interest of Pakistan to maintain a hostile relationship with a superpower like the US. From a merely economic viewpoint, a good relationship with the US is important for cash-strapped Pakistan, as the US is the country's largest export market, particularly for cotton and textiles. To put it bluntly, Pakistan’s economy is a shambles. Trade — if not aid — from the US could alleviate that. Trump showed willingness to invest in Pakistan during his meeting with Khan, and spoke of the historical trade relationship between the two countries.
The US and Pakistan have been strategic partners since Cold War era. In the early seventies, Islamabad served as a bridge for talks between the US and China when Washington was keen to strengthen its position in Southeast Asia against the defunct Soviet Union. During Richard Nixon’s administration, US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger reached out to Beijing through a backchannel provided by Pakistan.
Today, Trump needs Pakistan’s help again to play a key role in concluding a peace deal with the Taliban, in order to end America’s long war with Afghanistan. Trump also hinted at restoring US security assistance, which was drastically reduced last year, to Pakistan.
The US president knows that Pakistan’s help with Afghanistan could pave the way for hundreds of US troops to return home. He undoubtedly used Khan’s visit to the White House as an opportunity to incentivize Pakistan to use its leverage with the Taliban.
A peaceful US exit from Afghanistan is, however, not an easy business. All the stakeholders and anti-terror allies involved, including Pakistan, will have to put their other geopolitical and strategic considerations aside.
Today, Afghanistan is more unsafe than it was in 2001 when the US-led anti-terror alliance invaded the country. On 1 July, at least 16 people were killed and over 100 wounded when the Taliban attacked the country's capital housing military and government buildings. The attack came just two days after the Taliban began a seventh round of talks with the US in Qatar.
It’s clear this is going to be an uphill struggle. But, if Trump walks the walk as well as talking the talk, it could be a very worthwhile one.
Syed Fazl-e-Haider is a contributing analyst on the South Asia desk of Wikistrat. He is also the author of books including 'Economic Development of Balochistan'
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