Pakistan and America – drifting closer?

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Whilst it is far too soon to read a paradigm shift in the way that Pakistan is perceived by the upper echelons of American diplomacy and governance, it is possible that change is a work in progress. The recent visit by Republican US Senator to Pakistan has already been commented on in these columns, and his positive notes are now being picked up by American media and analysts.

Of particular interest is the perceptual shift at the bottom line of American thinking, and that the current Prime Minister Imran Khan may have been getting things right for far longer than he has been credited with.

Uncle Sam has had a consistent mantra for the last decade – Pakistan must do more. For its part Pakistan has regularly taken a stick to American foreign policy in the region, characterising it as a post-colonial meddler and an unreliable and mistrusted occasional partner.

Both sides were locked in a sterile cycle of mutual antipathy that fed and sustained their prejudices. A state of mutual frenemy-ship persisted and seemed impervious to change, but the Graham visit has opened a chink in the carapace.

The thin end of the wedge may be the calls for inclusion of the Taliban in any talks about peace in Afghanistan, and if there is a single item that Imran Khan has been consistent on besides calling for the resignation of anybody that actually disagrees with him – it is that the Taliban need to be at any table where peace is being talked both now and in the future.

With the US and its President keen to disentangle itself from the Afghan wars (there are several) the Graham perception and here is the shift, is that America has misread the script and that with Imran Khan there is an opportunity to shift the relationship from the transactional to the strategic, and that is a very different song to that being sung by most in the US government today.

Carrots have been few sticks many, and America generally responds to Pakistan as the punisher but what if the model was switched, and instead of economic sanctions there should be more, rather than less, bilateral trade. More person-to-person contact, more acknowledgement of the part Pakistan has played in reducing levels of terrorism at considerable cost of its own blood and treasure.

The Trump letter to Imran Khan seeking his assistance in bringing regional stability will have had input from at least some of those that surround and advise him. Talk of a free trade agreement was not plucked out of thin air either. That said we advise caution. There is often a world of difference between what America says and how that is heard in Pakistan, and what America actually means. There are messages inside the messages that may not be obvious at first glance.

But the blame-game cannot go on forever and opportunity can be crafted from threat and who knows, we may yet see a Pakistan Prime minister sitting next to the American President in the Oval Office exchanging diplomatic niceties. A possibility that is not as remote or ridiculous as it would have seemed six months ago.