White House meeting: Will Donald Trump call Imran Khan’s bluff?

Khan would want this meeting to bridge the gap between Washington and Islamabad. Trump would much rather focus on getting re-elected in 2020.

 |  6-minute read |   22-07-2019
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On January 1, 2018, less than a year after he became President, Donald Trump tweeted this:

India was delighted. Finally, the US had a leader who had called Pakistan’s bluff on terrorism.

inside_071919072352.jpgTrump has lost interest in Afghanistan. He'd much rather focus on getting re-elected in 2020. (Photo: Reuters)

The Taliban terror group that the Pakistani army created in 1993 was unperturbed. Pakistan by then had a prime minister-in-waiting, Imran Khan, who was widely expected to live up to his name: Taliban Khan.

Imran Khan Niazi (to give his full name) was duly installed as prime minister in a rigged general election in July 2018. The Taliban celebrated. Khan was the chosen puppet of the Pakistani army. Taliban leaders also knew that the mercurial Donald Trump, hit by the Bob Meuller-probe and immigration chaos on the country’s southern border with Mexico, had lost interest in Afghanistan.

On cue, Trump announced his decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, leaving only a small contingent of intelligence officers behind. “We don’t want to fight other people’s wars,” Trump declared, shifting his attention to getting re-elected in 2020.

This though didn’t prevent an irate Trump from tweeting on November 19, 2018: 

Imran Khan, now prime minister, angrily tweeted back: “Trump’s false assertions add insult to the injury Pak has suffered in US WoT (war on terror) in terms of lives lost & destablised & economic costs. He needs to be informed abt historical facts. Pak has suffered enough fighting US’s war. Now we will do what is best for our people and our interests.”

Cut from the same cloth as Trump, Khan had finally figured out that Trump had a grudging admiration for leaders who fought back.

Two examples — Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, with whom Trump had icy relations and Chinese President Xi Jinping, who Trump took time to take to. It needed a bone-crushing handshake by Trudeau and retaliatory trade tariffs by Xi for Trump to warm up to both. After Khan’s strong retort, Trump duly fell silent on Pakistan.

The meeting between Trump and Imran Khan in the White House on Monday, July 22, comes amidst this background. What will the two men discuss? Khan will probably make a gaffe or two as he did with the Saudi Arabian king and at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Kazakhstan. Trump will be his usual gruff self if in a bad mood, collegial if in a good one.

The Pakistani army has successfully gamed a succession of American presidents since September 2001 following the 9/11 terror attacks. The army’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s brutal spy agency, runs a slick operation. In the US, its suave — suited officers with unlimited budgets lobby Pentagon and state department officials using every inducement in the book. In Pakistan, ISI officers blackmail inconvenient journalists, murder activists and arm and fund terror groups for strikes against India and Afghanistan.

imran_071919072751.jpgKhan was the chosen puppet of the Pakistani army. The Taliban celebrated when he took office. (Photo: India Today)

Washington knows the full extent of Pakistan’s malice but is caught in a permanent bind. It wants to exit Afghanistan. But the moment the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) troops leave, the Taliban will seize control of Kabul. The terror group already controls over 40% of Afghan territory under the Pakistani army’s protection. Trump’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has held seven rounds of talks with Taliban leaders in Qatar’s capital Doha where the Taliban has a political office. A “peace” deal was tentatively agreed upon last weekend.

The Trump administration has come to terms with the horrific possibility that a terror group could soon rule Afghanistan under the watchful eye of the Pakistani army, following a general election in Afghanistan that has already been postponed several times.

Trump and Khan have a common agenda: To get the US out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible. Pakistan successfully lobbied just ahead of Khan’s Washington visit to have the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) declared a terrorist group by the US. Washington’s surrender to Pakistan-Taliban blackmail is reflected in the wording of the US State Department’s notification banning the Baloch freedom fighters: “BLA is an armed separatist group that targets security forces and civilians, mainly in ethnic Baloch areas of Pakistan. BLA has carried out several terrorist attacks in the past year, including a suicide attack in August 2018 that targeted Chinese engineers in Balochistan, a November 2018 attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi, and a May 2019 attack against a luxury hotel in Gwadar, Balochistan.”

1_071919074016.jpgWashington, Beijing and Islamabad have converging interests with respect to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. (Photo: India Today)

The mention of Chinese engineers and the Chinese consulate is significant. On Afghanistan and Balochistan (which comprises nearly 45% of Pakistan’s territory), Washington, Beijing and Islamabad have converging interests. China wants to protect its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that passes through Balochistan from attacks by Baloch freedom fighters. The US wants to get out of its longest foreign war even if it means handing Afghanistan over to Taliban terrorists. Pakistan, the choreographer of all this mendacity, couldn’t be more pleased with the turn of events.

For India, the return of a Taliban government in Afghanistan is a dreadful prospect. But Pakistan may have overplayed its hand. The Taliban is faction-ridden. The Pakistani army may find itself the guardian of an ungovernable Afghanistan. Terror attacks by Taliban factions on Pakistani assets in Afghanistan and in Balochistan could make this a pyrrhic victory for Islamabad.

Just as Punjab-based terror groups Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) that the Pakistani army created over the decades have left the country in danger of being blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the Taliban could prove equally self-destructive to Islamabad.

white-house_071919073318.jpgThe meeting between Trump and Khan in the White House has to bridge the gap between Islamabad and Washington. (Photo: India Today)

Trump, though, remains an unpredictable factor. He is increasingly relying on a racist, anti-immigration policy to win re-election next year. If he loses, the Democratic candidate who takes office could well reverse many of Trump’s unhinged policies.

Don’t count on it though. The Democratic frontrunner, 76-year-old Joe Biden, is running out of steam. His closest challengers, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, may not pose an electoral threat to Trump in a racially polarised America.

Four more years of Trump would be toxic for the US and the rest of the world — except for the Taliban and the Pakistani army. When Khan walks into the White House on July 22, Trump will scarcely remember his tweet attack last year when he berated Pakistan for its “lies and deceit”.

For Trump, lies and deceit are all in a day’s work.

Also read: Will this finally make Imran Khan and Donald Trump 'true' friends?


Minhaz Merchant Minhaz Merchant @minhazmerchant

The writer is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. He is a media group chairman and editor. He is the author of The New Clash of Civilizations

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