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(First published on July 27, 2019)

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As far as inflection points go, here is another one. The Prime Minister of Pakistan has returned from his maiden official visit to the United States. And he returned a happy man. Washington DC is a living, breathing and thinking organism which does not take much time in sizing up a visitor. It can cut anyone to size in a heartbeat or make him/her look larger than life — and by these standards, DC was on a charm offensive. There was no box that was left unchecked. A visit to the White House steeped in warmth and graciousness. An extended opportunity to share airtime with President Trump, where granted the host did most of the talking, but those were extremely kind words. An offer to mediate between India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir dispute was followed by interactions with the US lawmakers, business community and heads of various financial institutions, along with interview(s) with the leading US news channel(s) and an interactive session at one of the leading think tanks. Could it go any better? Most likely, not.

Then there was the matter of preparedness. It is customary for a visiting dignitary to be accompanied by a few key members of his cabinet or team. But also accompanying PM Khan were two men whose positions and departments would have continuously come under discussion, even in their absence by virtue of their importance. The unprecedented presence of Pakistan’s Army Chief and the Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence in the delegation was enough to point out that for once the civil, military leadership of the country was on the same page. Their presence was also useful when it came to a discussion on operational details of plans on the Afghan peace process or anything similar. Then there was the mammoth Jalsa of Pakistani Americans who came to show their affection for the new leader of the country of their origin. In his various talks, Mr Khan was also very candid, making no bones about the country’s past mistakes and highlighting past foibles too.

One remarkable moment that really got to me was when during the Oval Office media interaction, he was asked to comment on the Pakistan-India relations. Mr Khan responded that he did not know what else to do to persuade New Delhi to come to the negotiating table since he had repeatedly made peace overtures which were summarily rebuffed by the other side. While this is an easily discernable fact and Mr Khan came under fire at home for offering peace this often, if you want to comprehend the impact and scope of this statement and this moment, please go back and read the last paragraph from the start. As these words hung in the air, any experienced Indian diplomat or policy wonk would tell you by exposing Indian irascibility and stubbornness, more damage was done to the Indian position than by any offer of mediation.

Although there are many moving parts ahead and a lot needs to be done, I am confident that this moment and this visit have opened a new chapter of the Pakistan-US relationship. Successful closure of the war in Afghanistan and the start of the Pakistan-India Peace Process may finally remove all major stumbling blocks from its way. Much has changed in Islamabad. If New Delhi finally decides to resume a substantive dialogue process it might be surprised by Pakistan’s pragmatism and readiness to build an enduring peace. This pragmatism makes me believe that the Pakistan-US relationship will be restored to its rightful place in history.

But this moment took two decades in the making. To understand the challenges the relationship faced, you have to go back to another visit in July, twenty years ago. The then prime minister Nawaz Sharif had to rush to Washington in 1999 following the alleged reverses in the Kargil offensive. It is widely claimed that he went there uninvited along with his family, to impress upon his hosts that he might not be able to go back home if he failed to obtain help. Two decades later, very little is known about Kargil, and this visit. So much is contested that senior journalist Nasim Zahra, only recently finished her book on the subject. Bruce Reidel, however, has given us a detailed version of events during the Blair House meeting. Shuja Nawaz has done some further digging on the subject. Despite this, we remain miles away from knowing the exact nature and order of developments. Too much is contentious.

Everyone will agree that the Kargil episode proved to be a turning point in the Pakistan-US relations which tipped Washington in New Delhi’s direction. Perhaps, despite mutual distrust and divergence of interests, the relationship would have survived the Kargil shock had it not followed shortly after Pakistan and India going nuclear. The situation in Afghanistan was rapidly deteriorating and would soon erupt. After the 1999 coup and 9/11, the two countries would resolve to work together again. However, owing to New Delhi’s effective campaign against Pakistan — especially in light of Huntington’s “The clash of civilizations” thesis — our internal imbalances and presence of radical fringe groups within the country, limited this relationship to a one-window operation and mostly a transactional approach. After General Musharraf’s departure, particularly owing to the manner of his departure — which resulted in widening the civil-military trust deficit and change of administration in Washington — the situation worsened. The Pakistan-India binary had to be de-hyphenated and Pakistan was clubbed with Afghanistan. The civilian leaders with historical and personal baggage could not muster up the confidence to engage their own military command in effective dialogue, and resorted to other devices like the one that was later dubbed as the Memogate. Wars are painful. And when wars are fought on your own soil, they unleash a wide range of demons like paranoia and discord. After the loss of around 80,000 lives and two election cycles later, we have a leadership in Islamabad that knows the virtues of keeping the civil-military differences to the minimum and military leadership that also agrees with the dreams of international peace. The results manifest themselves in the shape of daily miracles — from Wing Commander Abhinandan’s capture and release, to Kulbhushan Jhadav’s verdict and then this visit.

When PM Imran Khan went to Washington, his battle-scarred, battle-hardened and deeply tormented country vying for peace and reform went with him. When President Trump received him with warmth, he displayed his own and the world’s most powerful nation’s deep wisdom. There is a chance that this interaction may end up fixing a deeply broken region. Pakistan still has a long journey ahead to heal properly. Since most of its woes and flawed choices stemmed from its economic instability, instead of relying on aid, the decision to work with the IMF for economic reform may prove to be the right call. From the depths of paranoia, a country is learning to trust again. Let us hope this faith takes it to a better place.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 27th, 2019.

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