Ilhan Omar’s PoK visit kicks up storm, U.S. says no change in policy


Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s visit to Pakistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) has kicked up a furor as it came amid allegations by former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was voted out of office earlier this month, that he had been the victim of an “American conspiracy”.

The Democratic Congresswoman from Minnesota paid a highly publicized visit to PoK and promised to ‘mainstream’ Pakistan’s concerns vis-à-vis India which have made little impact over the years in Washington.

While the U.S. has repeatedly denied the “foreign conspiracy” charge, Imran Khan continues to persist with his allegation, making it his principal political plank against the new government as Pakistan prepares for elections, which are likely to be advanced, later this year.

Analysts say this could embarrass both the government led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and the U.S. The U.S. embassy in Islamabad distanced itself from Omar’s four-day visit to the country that began April 20. An unnamed American official told the Dawn newspaper that it was a ‘private’ visit arranged when Imran Khan was still in office by a Pakistani national based in the U.S. who is close to Khan.

Derek Chollet, counselor to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, told ANI, “It’s an unofficial personal visit and does not represent any policy change on behalf of the United States government.”

India, calling Ilhan Omar’s politics ‘narrow-minded’, condemned her visit to PoK as violating India’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. An external affairs ministry spokesperson said, “We have noted that she has visited a part of the Indian Union territory of Jammu & Kashmir that is currently illegally occupied by Pakistan.

“Let me just say that if such a politician wishes to practice a narrow-minded politics at home, that’s her business, but violating our territorial integrity and sovereignty in its pursuit makes this ours and we think the visit is condemnable.”

Ilhan Omar, a Somali-born American, became the first U.S. lawmaker to visit Pakistan since Prime Minister Sharif took office. His government saw an opportunity in the visit to try to smoothen the strained U.S.-Pak relations. Its finance minister left for Washington April 20, the day Omar arrived in Islamabad, to resume talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a hefty financial bailout that Pakistan urgently needs.

Consequently, the Congresswoman received a red-carpet welcome. She met Shehbaz Sharif and Foreign Minister Hina Khar. But she also held a much-hyped meeting with Khan, her original host. Analysts say the government was left red-faced when Khan took credit for the visit.

Among the dignitaries Ilhan Omar met was Pakistan’s President Arif Alvi. He holds the top constitutional office and is an Imran Khan supporter. He went on “sick leave” when it came to swearing in the new government. During the crisis earlier this month, he echoed Khan’s ‘conspiracy’ charge against the U.S.

Khan’s charge that he was blackballed by the US for refusing military bases last year has been denied by the U.S. and refuted by the Pakistan Army brass which, it is widely believed, facilitated his rise to power in 2018 but turned ‘neutral’ this year after he led the country into an economic quagmire, sought to interfere with the army’s working, and tried to defy Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa.

Long before he was voted out, Khan was sore with U.S. President Joe Biden for not even making him a phone call and had complained publicly about being ignored. Analysts say he has been trying to whip up anti-American sentiment to appeal to conservative sections of society and win the support of militant groups.

The controversy within Pakistan surrounding Omar’s visit was reported by Dawn April 21, which deleted the story from its website a few hours later. The report said her meeting with Khan “hogged the spotlight”. Shireen Mazari, human rights minister in Khan’s cabinet, tweeted about the meeting: “US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar called on Chairman PTI in Bani Gala. They discussed Islamophobia and related issues. Ilhan expressed her admiration for Imran Khan and his position on and work against Islamophobia globally.

“Imran Khan appreciated her courageous and principled position on issues,” continued Mazari, a journalist-turned-security analyst and politician who also repeated Khan’s ‘conspiracy’ charge.

Dawn reported that social media “immediately questioned Khan about the meeting with the American legislator and reminded him of his criticism of U.S. officials meeting opposition figures”.

Not only did journalists and users of social media platforms seek justification of the meeting, but government functionaries also jumped into the debate and criticized Khan. Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah asked if Khan’s meeting with Omar was “a conspiracy or interference”. “Which conspiracy is being hatched?” he said while recalling Khan’s stance that his opponents’ meetings with American officials were ‘conspiratorial’.

Sanaullah warned of an investigation into the meeting “if Khan did not himself divulge details”. The government “will investigate since the nation should know the truth, lest Imran Niazi, according to his tradition, brings out another letter a few days later”, the minister remarked.

Ilhan Omar, a member of the Progressive wing of the Democratic Party, is not new to controversy. There have been several explanations for her trip, given that she had never shown any interest in Pakistan before. One of the more plausible ones is that her constituency has a sizeable Muslim population and she has worked extensively on Islamophobia, an issue that was also highlighted by Imran Khan, leading to the U.N. designating March 15 as International Day to Combat Islamophobia.