This week, nearly three years into his administration, President Donald Trump will meet for the first time the Pakistani head of government, Prime Minister Imran Khan. Onlookers await with bated breath as to what potential hilarity, outlandish comments, or protocol faux pas will ensue, as both men often reject diplomatic norms and traditions and do so with populist zeal and outsized personas.
But personality politics distracts from something truly astounding – it appears the United States is actually pleased with Pakistan’s efforts to get the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table. Let that sink in for a moment. The country that some American policymakers accuse of having provided safe harbor to Osama bin Laden is now being incentivized with a meeting in the Oval Office.
Now with the bin Laden controversy firmly in the past, and a new urgency driving the United States to end the war in Afghanistan, Pakistan faces an opportunity to course-correct international perception of its double-game in Afghanistan, where it both pressures and supports militants targeting American interests. If Pakistan succeeds in pressuring the Afghan Taliban to come to the table for peace talks, it earns a chance to rebuild a new and enduring relationship with the United States.
But that opportunity comes with a catch. The United States wants Pakistani action to extend beyond the Afghan Taliban. A new relationship also depends on sustainable action against anti-India militants based in Pakistan, such as Jaish-e-Muhammad. Succeeding in pressuring the Afghan Taliban simply clears the air for the Americans to refocus on the much more complicated question for Pakistan of what to do with anti-India militants.
While Pakistan continues to pursue erratic and short-lived crackdowns on these groups, their utility to the state still outweighs their cost. Their anti-India orientation offers a potential foil to growing Indian influence in Afghanistan and with the United States that Pakistan views as threatening, a utility that will ultimately limit Pakistan’s ability to win back the United States and all that comes with American approval, such as security assistance.
Pakistan is all too familiar with this dynamic, which is probably why just four days ago it arrested Mumbai attacks mastermind Hafeez Saeed in advance of the Trump-Khan meeting. The ability to imprison Saeed and subsequently release him has occurred on numerous occasions. It exists as a kind of pressure valve Pakistan reserves for use during moments of pressure and opportunity with the United States.
But beyond that, Saeed’s release is not enough to assume a change in Pakistan’s posture towards anti-India militants. Likewise, lavishing public attention and praise on Pakistan as an incentive for it to do more simply points to a replay of the old “carrots and sticks” approach which dominates U.S. strategic thinking on Pakistan. If anything, the Trump-Khan meeting will confirm the transactional nature of U.S.-Pakistan relations.
Pakistan stands to benefit from this transactional approach, as it gains U.S. recognition for its role in facilitating peace in Afghanistan, a reward that opens up political space for Pakistan with other western countries and multilateral institutions. Khan’s visit also enables Pakistan to poke India. Despite Prime Minister Khan’s overtures for dialogue with India, the fractured India-Pakistan relationship remains at a standstill. Furthermore, Pakistan will capitalize on any opportunity to chip away at the strategic partnership between the United States and India, which at the moment is embroiled in a trade conflict.
The benefits of the transactional approach for the United States are far more limited. Pakistan views the meeting as a reward for past behavior, while the United States views it as an incentive for future action. What that means in real terms is that Pakistan must continue to pressure the Taliban to engage in a formal peace process with the involvement of the Afghan government while also undoing a decades-old policy of using Pakistan-based anti-India militants as proxies.
In pursuing this approach, the United States fails to understand the logic of asking Pakistan to help stabilize Afghanistan while also asking it to pursue policies that Pakistan believes will destabilize its sense of security vis-a-vis India in the long-run. Herein lies a perpetual roadblock to any effort to reset U.S.-Pakistan relations – that while the two countries interests may overlap via short-term tactical interests, they continue to resist collaboration in any strategic or long-term sense.
As long as the war in Afghanistan persists, the United States and Pakistan need not worry about such policy dissonance – the two countries will need each other. However, if peace miraculously breaks out, they may find themselves enmeshed in another security conundrum on India and militancy that Pakistan will be even less willing to budge on.