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Sit-down comedy is alive and well in the United States. A demonstration of it was given by President Donald Trump during his reception of our prime minister Imran Khan in the Oval Office on 22 July.  

President Trump had read the script prepared by his staffers. He remembered the headings and the punch-lines but could not recall the intervening substance.  For example, the figure of $1.3 billion of aid popped up like a firefly in his mind. He forgot that it represented not aid but Coalition Support Funds for our role in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

He remembered that Imran Khan was a ‘popular leader’ and ‘athlete’ and then ad-libbed his way through the flip-flop of US-Pak relations since he became president.  It must have caused Imran Khan chagrin that precious prime time was exhausted by his host answering planted questions on subjects unrelated to US-Pak relations - the four recalcitrant Congresswomen, the tension with Iran, and Puerto Rico where he regretted that the United States had given $92 billion in aid which as squandered by corrupt politicians.

Suddenly, the figure of $1.3 billion popped up again in Trump’s mind and instantly he compared the aid to Puerto Rico to the $1.3 billion (‘peanuts’, to recall President Ziaul Haq’s words) given to Pakistan. That might have been a window of opportunity for Imran Khan to dilate on his own efforts to eliminate corruption in Pakistan and to retrieve money from the very politicians who had in their own tenure enjoyed a similarly warm reception in the same Oval Office.

No viewer could have missed the obvious warm rapport between the two men – the beleaguered but still all-powerful leader of the free world and the self-assured, suave leader of a impoverished fourth world country with nuclear capability. Both were flying solo, relying on their own charisma rather than the briefing papers prepared by the State department or the Foreign Office.

Suddenly, President Trump revealed that he had been asked by Indian prime minister Modi some weeks earlier to act as a ‘mediator or arbitrator’ on the Jammu & Kashmir issue. This revelation prompted Imran Khan to respond by declaring that the gratitude of over a billion Indians and Pakistanis would accrue to Trump if he succeeded. Neither seemed to be aware of the Shimla Agreement of 1972 or the Lahore Declaration of 1999. The devil may lie in the detail, but for President Trump and prime minister Imran Khan that day, they were floating in a heavenly empyrean of bonhomie. Mrs. Melania Trump capped the event by appearing for a photo-op with arguably the most debonair prime minister in the world (except perhaps Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau).

Will this bonhomie translate into presidential take-aways for Imran Khan? Will Imran Khan return to Pakistan laden with concessions by an effusively friendly US president?  

The brassy composition of the delegation that accompanied Imran Khan to the Washington is public knowledge. The Pentagon wished to have its own discussions with its military counterpart. The ostensible priority on their agenda will be a slow and safe withdrawal of collation forces from Afghanistan. The US hopes it will be a dignified defeat. It thought that when it quit Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and recently the Middle East.

In time historians will analyse why the United States, with its military might and devastating fire power (‘I can destroy Afghanistan in a week’, President Trump boasted to Imran Khan), has had to limp away from every conflict it has entered into since 1945. Gone are the days when one American – Allen Dulles – could precipitate a revolt in Iran against premier Mossadeq and restore Raza Shah Pahlavi as the US’ puppet on the peacock throne. Today, President Trump’s endorsement of the Venezuela’s rebel leader Juan Guaido in place of the incumbent president Nicolas Maduro has lost steam. A fickle Trump has transferred his affections to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.  

Since 9/11, Pakistan has received over $30 billion of aid and military reimbursements. (Remittances by the tight-fisted Pakistani diaspora in the US average $2.5 million per year.)  Once the US and its allies have quit Afghanistan, what will be the quantum of our relationship with the US? Where will we stand in a US-Saudi-Iran stand-off?  

It is not fashionable nowadays to look for precedents in history. Yet, one could learn from an exchange between Chairman Mao Zedong and Comrade I.V. Stalin in December 1949. Mao asked Stalin how long international peace could be preserved. Stalin replied presciently: China is under ‘no imminent threat. Japan has yet to stand up on its feet and is thus not ready for war. America, though it screams war, is afraid of war more than anything else.’

Are we not entitled now to a generation of peace?  




[DAWN, 25 JULY 2019]    

25 July 2019
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