NEW DELHI :
Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan arrived in the US early Sunday on a three-day visit, the first by a Pakistani prime minister since 2015, aimed at repairing ties damaged by US impatience with Islamabad’s seeming inability to rein in terrorist groups active in South Asia.
New Delhi will be keenly watching the visit for several reasons including indications of the kind of role Pakistan will play in creating circumstances favourable for a US exit from Afghanistan and whether Pakistan will ask the US to press India to start peace talks.
Khan will sit down for his first face-to-face talks with US President Donald Trump in the White House on Monday. “Prime Minister’s Imran Khan’s talks with U.S. president will mark an effort by the two leaders to reset the ties. It will expand bilateral cooperation on trade and investment as well as work toward peace in South Asia at large and Afghanistan in particular," the Pakistan information ministry said in a tweet on Sunday.
In what is being seen as a departure from norms, Pakistan’s top military leaders—army chief, general Qamar Javed Bajwa, and newly-appointed head of spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), general Faiz Hameed—are also accompanying Khan. Bajwa will visit the Pentagon to meet newly-appointed chairman of joint chiefs of staff general Mark Milley to discuss the ongoing reconciliation process in Afghanistan, news reports said.
The visit comes against the immediate backdrop of Pakistan detaining several terrorist leaders including Hafiz Saeed of the Lashkar-e-Taiba group known for executing terrorist attacks in India including the 2008 Mumbai strikes in which 166 people including six Americans were killed. It also comes after what is seen as a successful round of talks between the US and Taliban in Doha at the end of June with Pakistan seen as playing a role behind the scenes given its influence over the Taliban.
Since the Trump administration took office in January 2017, it has been seen as less tolerant than previous administrations of Pakistan’s harbouring of terrorist groups. In one of his first policy speeches on South Asia in August 2017, Trump said the US could “no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond." The US has been “paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting," Trump said.
Last November, Khan slammed Trump for saying that Pakistan “doesn’t do a damn thing" for the US despite billions of dollars in US aid for the South Asian nation. This was before Trump cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance to Pakistan. In New Delhi, while there has been some satisfaction that the US has pushed Pakistan to close terrorist camps on its soil, there has also been disquiet over the US ‘Afghan policy that indicates a role for the rebel Taliban in government. New Delhi has been worried that the US withdrawal will mean a government in Kabul that is influenced by Pakistan.
“On the US side, they clearly feel some progress has been made that would merit an invitation to Khan and a very high- level delegation that includes the army chief," said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. Having invited Khan and his team to Washington, he “cannot be sent back empty handed. There will be some movement forward on some issues – for example help that will aid Pakistan tide over some difficulties on the economic side," Sibal said pointing to the balance of payments crisis that forced Pakistan to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
“There is a serious gap in Indian interests and US policy as it unfolds in Afghanistan," Sibal said adding Khan’s visit could see a resumption of military aid to Pakistan given that senior Pentagon officials have been advocating the maintenance of military to military ties.
According to people familiar with the developments in New Delhi, Pakistan could seek Washington’s help to pressure India to restart peace talks to resolve outstanding bilateral disputes. Tensions have been high between the two countries in recent months especially following the 14 February attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy in Pulwama in Kashmir. New Delhi on its part maintains that talks and terrorist attacks on India cannot go together.
“It is not an easy situation for us. We will have to take view after striking a balance" between our expectations from the US and what they do during Khan’s visit to Pakistan, Sibal said.