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View: Pakistan plays Trump well

Trump wants US out of Afghanistan and the visit was all about letting the Pakistanis feel a little important.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Jul 24, 2019, 06.16 AM IST
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In the end, Khan did get his White House visit and the Pakistani army its foot in the door.
US President Donald Trump was always going to be the X factor in how Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Washington would go. He proved to be a big one. A (planted) question on the Kashmir dispute, a president not known for reading briefing books, and a well-prepared Khan ready to pounce — it went according to Pakistan’s plan. The Kashmir trap worked.

Trump waded in headlong, offering to mediate in the Kashmir dispute. It will play well in Pakistan, no doubt. But Khan’s troubles with a dying economy won’t be solved, nor will the ‘struggle’ against home-grown jihadis. Trump’s claim that PM Narendra Modi had personally asked him to mediate in Kashmir was so incredible, no one believed it — not US officials, not the experts, not Indians and not even Pakistani Twitter.

It prompted an unusually swift denial from New Delhi. The US State Department tried to artfully walk things back by calling Kashmir a bilateral issue. But Trump’s exertions will still hurt. Opposition leaders will use ‘Trump talk’ against Modi. BJP will feel compelled to respond. Which means GoI may feel pressured to go beyond the MEA statement.

That will give a momentary ‘Trumpism’ longer life and ultimately serve Pakistan’s agenda. It will obscure the more important question – does Khan’s visit amount to a ‘reset’?

Not really and not yet. Trump wants US out of Afghanistan and the visit was all about letting the Pakistanis feel a little important. But until a real framework peace agreement is in place, resumption of US security aid to Pakistan is a distant dream. Even Trump was clear about that.

Senior US officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have given India assurances that Khan’s visit is just a visit and there would be no paradigm shift. The visit itself is considered a ‘deliverable’ unless Trump decides to be generous, something he isn’t known for.

But Pakistan did play well. Sample Khan’s gushing response to the planted question, “I feel that only the most powerful State, headed by President Trump, can bring the two countries together.” That opened the floodgates. And once Trump starts flowing, it’s a free-wheeling, mostly fact-free, stream-of-consciousness performance in which world leaders come and go talking of Michelangelo. Each sentence leads to something more fantastical until it all ends in a mind-numbing spaghetti soup.

His intervention on Kashmir was one such. Previous US presidents have made offers too, and also got politely rejected. Trump probably knew that, but he sees a Nobel Prize hiding in every long-standing crisis.

Interestingly, Trump’s impromptu press conference exhausted most of the time allotted for the one-on-one meeting. That must have irked the Pakistanis no end. Trump took many more questions than is normal during a photo-op, eating into the 45 minutes of ‘alone time’ with Khan. By the time he finished, Khan had only 10 minutes alone before lunch started with the full delegation.

That was also typical Trump – if he doesn’t want to meet visitors for a one-on-one, he whiles away time with journalists. The delegation-level talks would have been tough if the White House read-out is any indication. The basic message was to ‘do more’ in Afghanistan and against various terrorist groups. “It is vital that Pakistan take action to shut down all groups once and for all,” the statement said. There was no mention of Kashmir.

Frankly, what was more impressive was Khan’s rally for Pakistani Americans. His ‘political managers’ managed to fill the Capital One Arena, which seats about 20,000. They pulled it off because they kept ticketing brilliantly simple — anyone could register on ticketing website Eventbrite and attend.

In the end, Khan did get his White House visit and the Pakistani army its foot in the door. Everyone suspects the Pakistanis are trying to sell old wares. But Trump doesn’t know that, and doesn’t care enough about issue to learn more. He just wants out of Afghanistan. And the Pakistanis have read that right.
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