It was a high-risk, low-return scenario. But from Pakistan's perspective, PM Khan's White House visit could not have gone better. President Trump doesn't mind castigating foreign leaders in front of camera. PM Khan brought out his inner matador, handled Trump with care, and apparently made a fan out of him. Khan's precise line and length have developed a personal rapport. That's what matters in the times of Trump.
For a low-key visit, the optics looked rather nice. PM Khan took special care not to show Trump red. Instead, he was nodding and prodding all the time with bated breath. Despite a couple of provocations by Trump, Khan did not lose his eagerness to restore ties and continued to admire Trump's leadership vis-à-vis Afghanistan. In turn, Trump called him “very popular", “one of the greatest (athletes)", and “tough".
On the matters of substance, it appears that the two sides left the Monday meetings on the same page. “The path to a strong and enduring partnership between Pakistan and the United States lies in working together to find a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Afghanistan," read a White House statement. In that respect, Trump will find Pakistan aligned in achieving his goal of ending America's longest war.
With Pakistan and regional countries' leadership on board to deliver a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan, the Trump administration is sensing an opportunity to make a dignified exit from Afghanistan and win plaudits at home. But to achieve that, Pakistan must be given its due: US must not do more harm at FATF's upcoming reviews and green-light multilateral financing from the likes of World Bank.
Pakistani interlocutors should sense another opportunity. As Trump repeatedly emphasized during the encounter, the two countries should grow their bilateral trade, which is “not much" in Trump's eyes. While external situation does not allow Pakistan to place big commercial orders for American goods, it can still curry favour with the Trump administration by facilitating US energy producers to provide more of Pakistan's LNG imports and play a bigger role in hydrocarbon exploration.
The meetings have created the necessary goodwill between the two leaders; this needs to be built on by the security and economic contingents. To the extent of this visit's objectives, it was ‘Mission Accomplished'. But there was more.
Trump's offer to mediate on Kashmir was a windfall nobody thought would accrue in one meeting alone. Modi sarkar must be feeling dismayed, because their regional security interests were supposedly aligned with those of the US. The State Department is now in damage-control to placate India's sensitivities. But the Indian Parliament is in an uproar over Trump's offer to mediate and Modi's request for Trump to mediate.
Be that as it may, Trump has opened up space for a larger dialogue for peace and stability in South Asia. India will, of course, reject any overtures and dwell again on the terrorism mantra. The White House statement also reiterates Indian talking points. But what New Delhi would have realized in those forty minutes of television is the limits of its diplomatic campaign to isolate Pakistan. The way this is playing out in India should inform New Delhi that it is perhaps futile to continue the policy of disengagement.
As for Pakistan, geography has given it another chance to set things right at home and abroad. Play the cards well this time.