Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan with Donald Trump, White House, Washington, July 21, 2019

Co-published with The Conversation:

At times, the press conference was surreal.

While visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan looked on, Donald Trump spent several minutes berating — one journalist counted six lies in 90 seconds — the Trump-Russia investigation and Special Counsel Robert Mueller. He said he could “kill 10 million people” in Afghanistan to “win a war within a week”, but had decided not to. He said he could be the mediator to solve the decades-long Kashmir dispute between Pakistan and India.

At times, Imran glanced at Trump with a look of resignation at the performance. But, generally, the Prime Minister said nothing as Trump leapt to answer questions directed at his guest. He carefully kept his hands in front of him, all fingers touching in a sign of steadiness and a bridging of the moment.

For this was Imran’s moment, after 11 months in office, to bring Islamabad out of the cold with the Trump Administration and US agencies.

Afghans reacted with shock at Trump’s blithe assertion that he could wipe out one-quarter of the population. Diplomats shook their heads at his self-confidence that, saying little more than “it’s a beautiful place”, he could sort Kashmir. But Imran was looking at his place on the political centre-stage and the $300 million in aid cancelled by the US military last autumn.

His official visit appears to go exceptionally well, with warm greetings from key figures like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Trump had responded well to flattery. And Imran had established Pakistan’s key place in Afghanistan, not as the oft-alleged “supporter of terrorism” but as the broker of a settlement.

Imran’s Great Game: Afghanistan, Kashmir, and a Personal Relationship

The first interaction between Imran and Trump was a frosty Twitter altercation, after the US delivered its slap in the face with the aid suspension.

But circumstances changed when Trump wrote a letter to Imran requesting Islamabad’s help to bring Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table. Pakistani officials have developed a constructive partnership with the Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad as he and the Taliban have held multiple rounds of negotiations in Qatar. In the latest phase, representatives of the Afghan Government have participated.

This positive engagement was made possible only by a re-calibration and alignment of the strategic goals of both sides in Afghanistan. For the first time, a US Administration has recognized that it cannot effectively stay in Afghanistan indefinitely. Washington now accepts that the eventual resolution of the conflict will only come from a political process that includes the Taliban. The US is the rationale of the Pakistanis — supported by regional actors like Iran, Russia, and China — that the Taliban must be part of the government.

Trump has played his part with his simple mantra that US troops must be brought home. In his appearance with Imran, he said the US must not be the region’s policeman, looking instead to partners to settle conflicts.

For Pakistan, the icing on the cake was Trump bringing the K-word before the press. When Khan raised Kashmir, Trump not only jumped to claim his mediation prowess but said a similar request had been made by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi,

Delhi swiftly and sharply denied the claim. However, its position of Kashmir as a bilateral issue, not requiring any external third-party mediation, has been shaken.

Then there was Imran’s peronsal victory, as Trump declared Pakistan a great country and its Prime Minister a great leader. While rebuilding links with agencies, Imran was also capitalizing on the special circumstance of playing politics from the top through the appeal to Trump’s ego.

Both US Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close friend of Trump’s, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman connected Khan with Trump. The former, impressed by his first meeting with Imran, speculated that he and Trump had similar personalities and would get along well. The latter built extremely cordial ties with Imran — as the Pakistani Prime Minister defied the informal boycott of the Crown Prince after October’s murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi — and is close to Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East adviser Jared Kushner, leading to the White House invitation for an Imran visit.

Afghanistan now becomes the catalytic issue to test the Pakistani-US rapprochement. And then, if that is resolved, comes the test of personalities and politics: can there be a renewed US-Pakistani strategic partnership, both for regional security and to help Imran ride out the economic challenges within his country?