What a three days it was for Prime Minister Imran Khan in Washington.
He participated in multiple White House meetings, culminating in a one-on-one exchange with President Donald Trump. He hobnobbed with senior congressional leaders on Capitol Hill. He networked with corporate bigwigs. He addressed an audience at a top Washington think tank. He gave interviews to America’s largest media outlets. And, of course, he headlined a jalsa before a beyond-capacity crowd that pulsated with his every word.
If we use splashy announcements and new agreements as measures of success, then Khan’s visit was nothing to write home about. But then again, neither Washington nor Islamabad was expecting anything of substance to arise from the trip. For the Trump administration, the visit was about rewarding Pakistan for its efforts to help kick-start peace talks in Afghanistan — and conveying a message that it hopes to see an intensification of such efforts. For Khan’s government, the visit was meant to register Pakistan’s readiness to reset and broaden a once-floundering partnership.
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However, if we judge the visit by the metric of public diplomacy, and how Khan was received and perceived by his hosts, then the visit was wildly successful. And given how Pakistan’s image abroad has suffered for so long — especially in Washington — one can chalk up the great optics and good vibes to emerge from the visit as a strategic success as well.
Consider what transpired over the last few days, excluding Sunday’s Capital One Arena event — an affair that certainly amplified Khan’s ability to mobilise and galvanise and energise, but ultimately amounted to preaching to a choir comprised mostly of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf partisans and other supporters. In other words, unlike with his other Washington engagements, he didn’t need to win people over. It was a jalsa, after all.
On Monday morning, Khan met with Senator Lindsey Graham — one of Trump’s closest allies on Capitol Hill, and someone who had spoken glowingly about the premier after meeting him in Islamabad earlier this year. Graham’s reaction after meeting with Khan this time was equally effusive. “In my opinion,” Graham tweeted, “he and his government represent the best opportunity in decades to have a beneficial strategic relationship [with] the US. This will help us secure Afghanistan and the region long-term.”
Khan then travelled to the White House. When he got out of the car to meet Trump, his body language was strong and confident — even though he initially looked a bit nervous. His White House schedule included a working lunch with Trump and several Cabinet secretaries. The most memorable moment, of course, was the extended exchange that he and Trump (who did most of the talking) had with reporters.
What made Trump’s comments so remarkable during the free-wheeling conversation with the press was that just about everything he said made Khan look good, and more broadly was music to the Pakistani government’s ears. Trump’s continuous praise for Khan and Pakistan, his surprising offer to mediate the Kashmir dispute, his dismissive comments about press freedoms — this is exactly what Islamabad wanted to hear.
Perhaps Trump’s most striking line was “Pakistan never lies.” Those three words directly contradicted a deeply entrenched narrative about Pakistan in Washington that refers to the mendacity and deception of Pakistani leaders. It was a narrative that Trump himself articulated in his infamous New Year’s Day tweet in 2018.
Then came Tuesday, and meetings on Capitol Hill. In Washington, where anti-Pakistan sentiment has been sharp in recent years, Congress has arguably been the epicenter of such vitriol. So Khan was not venturing into overly friendly territory. And yet, there he was, being honoured in a packed room at a reception sponsored by the Congressional Pakistan Caucus.
At the reception, House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, one of the most powerful people on Capitol Hill, spoke warmly of Pakistan. More significant, however, was the presence of Representative Brad Sherman. Sherman is often deeply critical of Pakistan; he has railed against forced disappearances and the plight of religious minorities, and he said he issued an apology to India’s ambassador in Washington after Trump’s offer to mediate the Kashmir dispute. And yet at the reception to honour Khan, Sherman urged the United States government to press Kabul “to accept the Durand Line, as the entire world recognizes that as the proper border between Afghanistan and Pakistan." Once again, sweet music to Islamabad’s ears.
In previous decades, Pakistani leaders often charmed their American hosts and won them over. Ayub Khan was frequently feted — including with a New York City ticker tape parade — in America. Richard Nixon was known to be quite fond of Yahya Khan. Benazir Bhutto was a favourite among Washington policymakers. Pervez Musharraf had many friends in this town as well; even in 2011, after his star had fallen, Musharraf attracted a huge crowd of adoring supporters to an address he gave at the Wilson Center not long after US forces apprehended Osama Bin Laden.
And yet, in the post-Musharraf era, Pakistani leaders have not received the treatment in Washington enjoyed by their more popular predecessors — until now. Indeed, say what you will about Khan, but Pakistan’s prime minister has energised the Washington officialdom in ways not seen for more than a decade.
To be sure, some caveats are in order.
First, Khan’s time in Washington was not flawless. His insistence that there are no restrictions on press freedoms in Pakistan — and more broadly his unwillingness to acknowledge the well-documented crackdowns on dissent in his country — was not a good look, to say the least.
Second, some of the warm treatment and kind words directed at Khan may have been by design: A charm offensive meant to showcase to Khan what may await Pakistan — a deeper partnership, and the broader cooperation and new forms of assistance that such a partnership entails — if Islamabad is able to make more progress on the counter-terrorism and Afghan reconciliation fronts.
It’s also important to think about historical precedent. In November 2016, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called Trump to congratulate him on his election victory. Trump responded with bizarrely lavish praise, calling Sharif a “terrific guy” with a “very good reputation” and declaring that “Pakistanis are one of the most intelligent people.” Then, once he took office, he started talking tough on Pakistan, and the relationship took a big plunge.
There’s a broader point to be made here: Khan’s public diplomacy success in Washington doesn’t mean bilateral ties will magically morph from a dysfunctional relationship to a match made in heaven. There are too many fundamental tensions and policy divergences — over India, China and terrorism, just to name three — to expect US-Pakistan relations to enjoy a renaissance. Additionally, if the White House decides, several months down the road, that Pakistan isn’t making sufficient progress on the Afghanistan and counter-terrorism fronts, all bets could be off.
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Still, none of this is to take away from what Khan achieved in America. While his immediate predecessors may have had similar meetings in similar places during their Washington sojourns, Khan did it while exuding more charisma and confidence — and drawing more emphatic praise from American leaders. His celebrity status certainly helped his public relations cause. So did the fact that his visit was accompanied by surprisingly few anti-government protesters.
The bottom line? Khan’s pleasant and well-received visit offered a much-needed breath of fresh air for a relationship so often characterised by toxicity.
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Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @michaelkugelman
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