Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan is due to hold key talks with US President Donald Trump in the US capital with the Afghan peace process expected to figure highly on the agenda.
Khan will meet Trump in the Oval Office in Washington, DC on Monday, both governments confirmed, in a rare thaw in what has been a tense relationship since the latter took office.
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The Pakistani prime minister and his delegation, which includes Pakistan‘s powerful military, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and intelligence service chief Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, arrived in the United States’s capital on Saturday.
“President Trump and Prime Minister Khan will discuss a range of issues, including counterterrorism, defense, energy, and trade, with the goal of creating the conditions for a peaceful South Asia and an enduring partnership between our two countries,” said a White House statement on the visit.
Pakistan says Khan will focus on outlining his vision for a “New Pakistan”, the campaign slogan he was elected on last year, promising an anti-corruption drive, government austerity and better governance.
The Pakistani prime minister met senior officials of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund on Sunday to discuss the country’s spluttering economy. He will also meet members of the US Congress, businessmen and is scheduled to hold a talk at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) during his visit.
Trump has taken a hard line on Pakistan since coming to office, slashing more than $1.1bn in US military assistance to a country he accused of duplicity in its fight against armed groups such as the Taliban.
The US and Afghan governments have contended that Pakistan offers safe haven and support to the Afghan Taliban and its allies, against whom a US-led NATO coalition has been fighting an 18-year war in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Pakistan denies the charge, saying it holds only limited influence over the group.
Ties have warmed slightly, however, as the US has pursued direct peace talks with the Afghan Taliban, facilitated by Pakistan, holding a number of high-level meetings aimed at a negotiated settlement of the war.
Afghan peace talks
“The issue of greatest convergence is the one that will likely figure most prominently in the Trump-Khan talks: […] peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director at the US-based Wilson Center think-tank.
“Washington views Pakistan, due to its leverage over the Taliban, as a critical player in the current talks. So we can expect the two leaders to cement their commitment to moving the peace process forward in Afghanistan.”
Analysts said the US focus on talks with the Afghan Taliban has vindicated years of Pakistani policy on the conflict.
“The US has accepted Pakistan’s long-standing position that there is no military solution to the war in Afghanistan and that a solution must recognise the Taliban as a political entity,” said Hassan Akbar, an Islamabad-based foreign policy analyst.
As a result, Akbar argued, there was room for growth in a relationship that has been beset by a chronic trust deficit.
“I think there is room for confluence, and Trump is likely to appreciate Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan,” he said.
“Pakistan has done ample work to ensure that there is direct contact between the Taliban and the US.”
Talks with the Afghan Taliban cleared a key hurdle when members of the group agreed to meet representatives of the Afghan government for the first time, albeit “in a personal capacity”, earlier this month.
There are, however, other areas of divergence that analysts warn may not be dealt with as congenially.
The US has long pushed for Pakistan to take action against armed groups that target Indian security and government facilities in the disputed region of Kashmir and elsewhere, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM).
On Wednesday, Pakistani police arrested Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the founder of LeT and alleged mastermind of the 2008 attacks in India’s Mumbai that killed more than 160 people, on “terrorism”-financing charges.
Trump lauded the move on Twitter, saying “great pressure has been exerted” for his arrest, although he implied that Saeed had been in hiding, which was not the case.
After a ten year search, the so-called “mastermind” of the Mumbai Terror attacks has been arrested in Pakistan. Great pressure has been exerted over the last two years to find him!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 17, 2019
Pakistan has been carrying out a renewed crackdown on armed groups since 2017, when the country was “grey-listed” by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a 39-member intergovernmental body that monitors curbs on “terrorism “financing and money laundering.
FATF, where the US, India and other countries have been pushing Pakistan for more action, is due to make a final determination in October on whether it would blacklist Pakistan, a move that could isolate its struggling economy from international markets.
Dozens of high-level leaders of armed groups have been taken into custody, with some LeT leaders charged with “terrorism” financing earlier this month. Members of JeM were also taken into custody following a military standoff with India over an attack in Kashmir earlier this year.
“I think this time [the crackdown] is serious because there is a lot of pressure from FATF,” says Zahid Hussain, an Islamabad-based security analyst.
“They have arrested him [Saeed] for terrorism financing, which is very serious. They have at least recognised that they have been involved in terrorist activities because this never happened before.”
Saeed has been arrested several times in recent years, notably for almost 11 months in 2017 but has routinely been released by the courts when authorities did not present compelling evidence to continue holding him.
Kugelman says “the scale and intensity of Pakistan’s latest crackdown has been impressive”, but warns the country must take “complete and irreversible steps against [armed groups]” to regain US trust on the issue.
However the talks go, analysts say no major breakthrough announcements are expected.
One area in which there could be a further thaw may be in US military training assistance to Pakistan’s military.
At a confirmation hearing earlier this month, Trump’s nominee for the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley told senators he believes military-to-military contact between the two forces needs to be resumed.
At a background briefing with journalists on Saturday, a White House official hinted that the security assistance suspension could be softened, pending certain actions against armed groups.
Pakistan will also be hoping to push the US president to help bring India to the negotiating table to restart dialogue long stalled at India’s insistence that Pakistan must first deal with armed groups.
“For me, the main headline for this visit is divergent expectations,” says Kugelman. “The Pakistanis see it as an opportunity to reset the relationship and set it on a new and broader path. The Americans, conversely, mainly want to talk about Afghanistan and prod the Pakistanis to intensify its crackdown on terrorists.”
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.