Traditionally, a US sitting president calls incoming heads of state or government they deem important to offer felicitations on their victory. Since Pakistan has been a critical ally and mostly maintained an extraordinarily sensitive relationship with the United States for decades, the congratulatory exchange becomes a norm.
President George W. Bush telephoned Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, and later President Zardari, to congratulate them in assuming their positions. That was in March and then September 2008 respectively.
Keeping up with the practice, the Obama White House also issued a munificent statement, just a day after Pakistan’s general elections in 2013, declaring that the United States stands with all Pakistanis in welcoming the historic, peaceful and transparent transfer of civilian power, which is a significant milestone in Pakistan’s democratic progress. As per the statement, “The United States and Pakistan have a long history of working together on mutual interests, and my administration looks forward to continuing our cooperation… as equal partners in supporting a more stable, secure, and prosperous future for the people of Pakistan.”
Four days later, after the PML-N emerged victorious, President Barack Obama spoke with Nawaz Sharif to congratulate him on his party’s success. The then-White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters during a briefing that, “the two leaders agreed to continue to work together to strengthen US-Pakistan relations and advance our shared interest of a stable, secure and prosperous Pakistan and region”. Sharif had not even taken oath of office by then.
This time, after the 2018 elections, there was an apparent change.
“It’s out of ordinary for a US official not to call a new leader in Pakistan,” says Dr Marvin Weinbaum, a venerable expert on Pakistan US relations, adding “normally it’s from the White House.”
The Trump White House remained silent throughout, though the administration was closely observing election-related developments in Pakistan.
The very first statement, that the State Department issued post election results, actually questioned the fairness and transparency of the polling process. After commending the courage of the Pakistani people and issuing condolences to the victims of violence during the election period, the US highlighted that the development of strong democratic and civilian institutions of governance and a vibrant civil society is critical to Pakistan’s long term stability and prosperity.
In that context, the United States shared concerns about flaws in the pre-voting electoral process, as expressed by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
The second official response from the State Department came hours after Imran Khan became Leader of the House. The spokesperson repeated that the administration was looking forward to working with Pakistan’s new civilian government to promote peace and prosperity. The short message contained carefully chosen words and declared that “we recognize and welcome the newly elected Pakistan prime minister on taking oath of office”.
The difference between the statements issued in 2013 and 2018 post-elections was distinct.
The first high level contact between the Trump administration and the new government in Pakistan was made four days after Imran Khan took office. The US Secretary of State spoke with the prime minister to “wish him success”.
The readout that followed stated: “Secretary Pompeo expressed his willingness to work with the new government towards a productive bilateral relationship.” It then added, “Secretary Pompeo raised the importance of Pakistan taking decisive action against all terrorists operating in Pakistan and its vital role in promoting the Afghan peace process.”
The Imran Khan-led government took offense to the last paragraph and reacted strongly. Rejecting the American read-out about the substance of the call, it insisted: “Pakistan takes exception to the factually incorrect statement issued by US State department on phone call between PM Khan and Secretary Pompeo”. The Foreign Office spokesman Dr Muhammad Faisal wrote on Twitter, “There was no mention at all in the conversation about terrorists operating in Pakistan. This should be immediately corrected.”
The blatant manner demonstrated publicly on Twitter by the Foreign Office turned the high-level contact into a full-blown controversy. It also exposed that the new government lacks knowledge and handling pattern of tactful foreign relation matters.
In response to this dramatic over-reaction, the State Department asserted that it stands by its statement. “In the readout the Secretary notes that he spoke with the new prime minister and expressed his willingness to work with the new government toward a productive bilateral relationship,” the department spokesperson Heather Nauert said adding, “the beginning of the call or the call itself was a good call and a good discussion toward our working with the new government and the new administration.”
She reiterated that Pakistan was an important partner to the United States while hoping to forge a good productive working relationship with the new civilian government.
All political and diplomatic observers I spoke to thought it obvious that the US officials would talk to the Pakistani leaders about issues of mutual concerns. They think the Khan government is merely trying to appear bold and score domestic points.
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi appeared before the media a day later only to support the Foreign Office’s stance on the issue. In his own polite way he remarked, “the impression that has been given in their [U.S.] press release, in which they are mentioning ‘terrorists operating in Pakistan’, is contrary to the facts. And I am saying this with full confidence.”
Yet, for experts, the disagreement on the substance of the call was too trivial to be handled so brashly. They argue the cause of this row suggests how sensitive things were between the two countries and fear that hawkish behaviour from either side could derail chances of working together.
It is noticeable that the Trump administration officials view the new Pakistani government less favourably. But, at the same time, the US has been insisting it wants to work with the new leadership on matters of mutual interest. Foremost is securing the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and bringing the Taliban to negotiating table, besides economic support that Pakistan desperately requires.
A senior US diplomat appreciated Imran Khan’s statement about peace in the region. “The issues are tough, no doubt, but together, I know we can translate these shared interests into further action that achieves our mutual objectives,” Ambassador Alice Wells told a gathering last month.
To defuse the situation, the experienced Foreign Minister also stressed that, “mistakes are made and it could have been made, and what we have stated [about the call] is correct. I think we have to move on, and if he [Pompeo] is coming on September 5, we will try to steer our bilateral relations with America towards a better path.”
Even though the Pompeo-Khan phone fiasco erupted unnecessarily, it’s encouraging to note that there were efforts to water it down. The same FO spokesman Dr Faisal has now suggested that, “We want an end to this [telephone] matter and want to move forward politically.”
Needless to say the Khan-government has to tread rather carefully and capture the significant opportunity of hosting the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chairman Joint Chief of Staff General Joseph Dunford during their few hours stopover in Islamabad. It is also a matter of fact that both US officials are meeting with the new leadership in Pakistan to discuss just the subjects that broadly involve the issue that irked the government in the first place.