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US-Pakistan: Inflection Point
  • Imran Kahn and Donald Trump
    Imran Kahn and Donald Trump
From a diplomatic faux pass on mediation in Kashmir to casually stating that he could win the war by killing ten million people and wiping Afghanistan off the map, President Trump’s media conferences can fell any man with a weak heart. However both allies and foes could equally agree that Trump’s arrival allows them to drive the bilateral process at a completely different track, unfettered by bureaucratic and organization dynamics. For Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s latest meeting with Trump, the deliverables were clear: Pakistan needed to get back in the US’ good books, in order to stave off the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) review due in October 2019. 

Trump also seeks to use a carrot and stick approach with Pakistan to secure maximum possible cooperation in Afghanistan. Though Pakistan claims no control over the Taliban, it ironically offers to intercede with them, and visibly provides safe havens to the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, among others. Its capacity to influence the security dynamic in Afghanistan has now manifested in its joining the US-Russia-China trilateral on Afghanistan. 

The correlation between Afghanistan and FATF, for Pakistan and the US, is very likely to deliver an inflection point in their relations later in the year.  

After its last plenary to review compliance with AML/CFT (anti-money laundering/combating the financial terrorism) standards, FATF stated, “not only did Pakistan fail to complete its action plan items with January deadlines, it also failed to complete its action plan items due May 2019”. It cautioned that failure to meet action plan goals by October would force it to “decide the next step at that time for insufficient progress.” 

The fact that China holds the FATF presidency from July 2019 can offer little comfort to Islamabad. China withdrew its support to Pakistan during the final phase of the last plenary, perhaps motivated by a desire to protect its own investments under the rubric of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). FATF has 37 members with voting powers, and two regional organizations, but does not grant any overriding voting rights or veto power. The FATF plenary, the highest decision making body, follows a consensus based decision making approach. China taking over the presidency does not alter the dynamics at the FATF because the working process is driven more by technical, rather than geopolitical, considerations. Moreover, unlike the United States, China does not carry the same diplomatic heft with other member countries to force decisions in a particular direction.

The US, however, does exercise significant influence over the FATF because of its diplomatic clout. That is why Khan left no stone unturned in emphasizing that the US was “vital for Pakistan” and that “we’ve been fighting wars together”. From Khan’s and Pakistan’s point of view, harping on the element of togetherness was essential to drive the point that US will need Pakistan’s invisible hand in guiding the negotiation process to an outcome where the US could claim success and exit Afghanistan.  

Trump who views “Pakistan from the Afghan prism” didn’t hide his impatience either, “So we’re working with Pakistan and others to extricate ourselves… We’ve been there… for 19 years, in Afghanistan.  It’s ridiculous. And I think Pakistan helps us with that because we don’t want to stay as policemen.” 

This impatience is a result of the fact that no concrete agreement on a ceasefire declaration or troop withdrawal timeline has emerged even at the end of the seven rounds of talks with the Taliban. 

So Trump dangled a reward for cooperation: “I ended that (aid to Pakistan) about a year and a half ago, the $1.3 billion. I think we have a better relationship with Pakistan right now than we did when we were paying that money. But all of that can come back, depending on what we work out.” Earlier, on July 2, US had rewarded Pakistan’s ‘cooperation’ with the talks by placing the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) on its Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) list. 

Imran also dangled a carrot, stating, “I will meet the Taliban and I will try my best to get them to talk to the Afghan government so that the elections in Afghanistan must be inclusive with the Taliban also participate in it." 

The FATF itinerary gives an indication of what may transpire on the Afghanistan front. The FATF plenary is due to meet in October 2019. It is likely that the Taliban will drag the negotiation process until October without agreeing to any comprehensive ceasefire. Eventually, if at all Taliban agrees on the ceasefire, Pakistan would have “delivered” on the talks in exchange for a potential reprieve from being blacklisted by the FATF. If a reprieve is not forthcoming, then it is an equal certainty that any inked agreement or verbal understanding on Afghanistan would break down, and violence would surge. If no agreement is reached, Trump would use the FATF downgrade to turn the screws on Pakistan. Whatever the outcome, US-Pakistan relations are sure to change tack. 
Joy Mitra   Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management