Imran Khan has good reasons to visit US

There are some positive signs going forward on the India-Pakistan front. Islamabad has taken some steps to assuage India’s concerns. The International Court of Justice verdict on Kulbushan Jadhav, the Indian sentenced to death by a military court in Pakistan, has been overturned at The Hague, and Islamabad is asked to review the case again. It has been a hard fought battle, placing Delhi in a sweet spot.

With confidence overflowing in South Block, many here will egg on the government not to yield an inch to Pakistan, believing a hard line is its best option. Pakistan’s case was always weak as it had gone against the Vienna protocol by denying even basic courtesy like counsellor access to Jadhav.

But all this is for another day, as the ICJ ruling has nothing to do with Islamabad. Here we are looking at Pakistan’s actions in recent weeks and whether this indicates a change of heart and a desire for peace with India.

Nothing between the two arch rivals have ever been straight and simple, there are always wheels within wheels. Afterall skeptics say, we have seen such gestures before and they have yielded nothing much in the long run.

Peaceniks on both sides of the border are hoping that all this will lead to eventual talks between the two countries. Whether this will happen is a million dollar question. 

Cynics have dismissed Islamabad’s recent gestures as an attempt to create a fizz ahead of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s crucial meeting with President Donald Trump on July 22nd.

Imran Khan, has armed himself with suitable talking points for the US administration and is hoping to score brownie points with the Trump administration.

This will be Imran Khan’s first official visit to the US since taking office. Ties between old friends US and Pakistan were strained since the US and NATO forces were fighting in Afghanistan, but reached a new low after Trump took office.

The US President in his usual style has not hesitated in publicly chiding Pakistan. But as US talks with Taliban reach a decisive stage and an Afghan peace deal is being negotiated, Washington needs Pakistan’s support.

The rhetoric has cooled in recent months, and both sides would make an effort to repair ties when Trump and Imran Khan meet. In a statement earlier ahead of Khan’s visit, the White House said the two leaders will "discuss a range of issues, including counterterrorism, defence, energy, and trade, with the goal of creating the conditions for a peaceful South Asia and an enduring partnership between our two countries."

But before heading to Washington, the Imran Khan government has taken a number of confidence-building steps. Jamaat ud-Dawa (JUD) chief Hafiz Saeed, who India regards as the master behind the Mumbai attacks, has been arrested by the Punjab Counter Terrorism squad.

According to reports from Lahore, he was held near Gujranwala on his way to Lahore for collecting funds for banned outfits. That’s something he has been doing even after he was declared an international terrorist by the UNSC sanctions committee back on December 10, 2008.

Hafiz Saeed had appealed for lifting of the ban but the UNSC had remained firm. He had been arrested and released off and on since then, depending on the situation Pakistan finds itself in at that particular point.

When there is international pressure, he goes in but the courts release him once the pressure is off. So, how seriously the latest move is to be taken remains to be seen.

After all, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Donald Trump, in his usual style, claimed that it was the US pressure on Pakistan that led to Hafiz Saeed being found and arrested, forgetting that he was often seen moving around publicly in Punjab.

Pakistan has also reopened its air space and the five month ban on flying over its territory is over, much to the relief of airlines and passengers. The ban was put in place after Indian airforce planes attacked Balakot.

The lifting of the ban is a bonus for Indian companies as well as passengers flying to Europe and US.

Earlier India and Pakistan resumed talks on the Kartarpur corridor after Pakistan gave in to Delhi’s demand of removing Gopal Singh Chawla, a known pro-Khalistan supporter, from the Pakistan Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, which would be closely involved with the Kartarpur project.

Delhi feared that the Khalistan supporters operating from Pakistan could make use of the pilgrims to revive the movement. India did not want to take that risk.

However, the government is well aware that it cannot turn down Pakistan’s offer to allow Sikh pilgrims to visit the place where Guru Nanak spent his last years.

Keeping Sikh religious sentiments in mind, the BJP government could not reject the Pakistani offer to open Kartarpur to pilgrims to commemorate the 550 anniversary of their Guru Nanak.

The US had welcomed the Kartarpur move and said it was "incredibly supportive" of anything that increases people-to-people ties between India and Pakistan.

It is not just the US but China, Russia and the EU also want India and Pakistan to normalise their ties and bring down the temperatures between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.

It is only after the Trump-Khan meeting that Pakistan’s recent gestures can be judged. If it is for atmospherics ahead of the visit, as many cynics believe, or an actual peace move that Imran Khan had talked about, will be clear soon.

Seema Guha is a senior journalist with expertise in foreign policy and international affairs.