Hoping For Improved U.S. Ties, Pakistan's Prime Minister Set To Visit White House

Jul 19, 2019
Originally published on July 30, 2019 8:16 am

The Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and President Donald Trump have met before — on Twitter, where they sparred. Next week, they will be meeting in real life, as Khan heads to Washington, D.C., for a three-day visit.

The July 22 invitation to the White House comes as Washington tries to finalize negotiations with the Taliban to end the nearly two-decade war in Afghanistan. Pakistan is seen as being key to those efforts. So the invitation suggests an easing of bitter tensions that have beset the U.S. relationship with Pakistan.

"From isolation, we have moved toward invitation," said Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi at a Tuesday conference in Islamabad on U.S.-Pakistan ties. "We see [the] invitation as acknowledgement of the inherent importance of the relationship for both sides."

But relations may hinge on the rapport between President Trump and Prime Minister Khan, two populist leaders who prefer social media over traditional communications and tend to speak plainly, said Javed Ashraf Qazi, a former head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency and a Khan supporter.

"Both of them are pretty independent-minded people and they are not bound by the staff working for them before they start giving tweets," Qazi said. "Imran, too, is rather direct in what he wants to say — he doesn't mince words — he doesn't hide his feelings."

The two leaders tussled on Twitter in November, when Trump wrote a series of tweets accusing Pakistan of hiding al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden while taking U.S. aid money.

"We paid Pakistan Billions of Dollars & they never told us he was living there. Fools!" Trump tweeted.

In a subsequent tweet, he wrote: "We no longer pay Pakistan the $Billions because they would take our money and do nothing for us, Bin Laden being a prime example, Afghanistan being another. They were just one of many countries that take from the United States without giving anything in return. That's ENDING!"

Khan responded in a series of tweets, accusing Trump "of making Pakistan a scapegoat" for America's failures in Afghanistan.

The back-and-forth underscored relations that have frayed over accusations that Pakistan harbors militants who have targeted American forces and allies in neighboring Afghanistan — claims that Pakistan denies.

Since Trump took office, the relationship has eroded further. His administration suspended millions of dollars in military aid to Pakistan last year and cut dozens of Pakistani military officers out of prestigious exchange programs.

But shortly after last November's Twitter fight, Trump asked Pakistan to pressure the Taliban to continue with negotiations, led by U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, that appeared to be sputtering. The request appealed to Khan, who has argued for decades that Washington must negotiate with the Taliban.

Then, in January, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham visited Pakistan and urged Trump to meet Khan.

"Prime Minister Khan was criticized over the decades, over the past 10 or 20 years, about talking about reconciling with the Taliban. He was right," Graham said, according to video from a news conference he held in Islamabad.

Since then, Afghan peace negotiations have continued, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he hopes they will conclude by Sept. 1.

Whether that occurs or not, Khan's visit to Washington is already a boost for the prime minister, who can say he revived ties with a key ally. The last visit by a Pakistani premier to the White House was four years ago.

It is a needed victory for Khan, some analysts say. He has struggled to deliver promises of jobs and prosperity that he promised during elections last year. Instead, he has accepted an IMF bailout of $6 billion and faces widespread public anger over rising prices and a sinking currency.

"It's a positive prize for Prime Minister Imran Khan, given his own current domestic issues," said Ammara Durrani, a sociologist and writer on Pakistani politics. "This visit is coming at a time when he is facing a particularly aggressive opposition which has announced a full-throttled movement launched against his government."

Critics say Khan's government, aided by the military, the country's most powerful institution, has sought to quell dissent by cracking down on opposition leaders, journalists and activists of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, a rights group.

Khan is expected to lead a delegation that will include Pakistan's army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, and the military intelligence chief, said Ayesha Siddiqa, author of Military, Inc.: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy.

They will be lobbying to resume the military training programs, and will likely seek permission to purchase spare parts for Pakistan's F-16 jets, said Siddiqa. They are also expected to ask for U.S. help in being removed from the gray list of the Financial Action Task Force, an intergovernmental anti-terrorism financing group, and in accessing more loans to boost Pakistan's troubled economy.

"Pakistan wants money and military stock, and it wants improved relations with the U.S.," Siddiqa said.

The U.S. will likely press Pakistan to take permanent action against extremists like Hafiz Saeed. He stands accused of masterminding attacks in Mumbai, India, that left more than 160 people dead in 2008. His loyalists were allowed to contest Pakistani elections last year, from a political party widely seen as a front for Saeed. (They won no seats).

Pakistani authorities arrested Saeed on Wednesday, not for the first time, and he faces multiple terrorism financing charges. Analysts said the arrest may have come to deflect pressure on Pakistan before Khan's meeting with Trump, who noted the arrest on Twitter.

And Pakistan may be asked to support Washington's efforts to pressure Iran, said Qazi, the former intelligence chief. Iran has accused Pakistan in the past of turning a blind eye to militants targeting its forces in cross-border attacks.

Qazi said he expected Khan to push back against any such request. Ultimately, much may ride on the relationship between Trump and Khan.

It could "mend some of the fissures that we have had in our relations and things could go smoothly," he said. "Or it could totally go in the opposite direction."

NPR producer Abdul Sattar contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


Pakistan's prime minister, Imran Khan, and President Donald Trump have exchanged some tough words online. Today they will meet in person for the first time. Khan is visiting the White House. And on the top of the agenda, the two leaders will try to figure out how to end the war in Afghanistan. NPR's Diaa Hadid has more from Islamabad.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Pakistan's prime minister and the American president share a few things in common. Both are wealthy men. Both are populists. And like Trump, Khan...

JAVED ASHRAF QAZI: He also rich. So he is somewhat like Trump in that regard.

HADID: That's Ashraf Javed Qazi (ph). He's a former head of Pakistan's powerful military intelligence.

QAZI: Imran, too, is rather direct in what he wants to say.

HADID: In November, Trump accused Pakistan on Twitter of not doing enough on Afghanistan despite taking American aid. And Khan responded. He accused Trump of making Pakistan a scapegoat for America's failures in Afghanistan. But days after that Twitter fight, things changed.

Negotiations between a U.S. envoy and Taliban leaders to end the war were faltering, and Trump asked for help because Pakistan has sway over the insurgent group. Khan, who has long advocated for negotiations with the Taliban, agreed to help. And since then, there's been steady progress. Earlier this year, during a visit to Pakistan, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said he'd urge President Trump to meet with Khan.


LINDSEY GRAHAM: Prime Minister Khan was criticized over the decades about talking about reconciling with the Taliban. He was right. The war in Afghanistan will end through reconciliation.

HADID: The Trump-Khan meeting will chiefly focus on that war. Ammara Durrani is a political analyst in Islamabad.

AMMARA DURRANI: This meeting would definitely focus on resolving some key final issues which could eventually and hopefully lead to a political settlement in Afghanistan.

HADID: Both the U.S. and Pakistan want this war to end. Trump can claim a foreign policy victory as the president who ended America's longest war. And Pakistan will have cemented its leverage in any future Afghan government through its sway over the Taliban. But the visit to the White House itself is a domestic policy win for Khan, at a time when he's facing anger at home for rising prices and a falling currency. It's the first visit by a Pakistani prime minister in four years, and Khan can claim he's fixing ties with an important ally. This is his foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, speaking at a conference last week.


SHAH MAHMOOD QURESHI: I can say today that from isolation, we have moved towards invitation.

HADID: But ultimately, much may ride on the personal rapport Khan strikes with Trump, says Qazi, the former intelligence chief.

QAZI: I think it could go either way. Either it will mend some of the fissures that we have had in our relations and things could go smoothly...

HADID: Or, he says, they could totally go in the opposite direction.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRISTEZA'S "DARK PEERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.