U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at a news conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kuwait City on June 26, 2013. Kerry is on an official tour of the Middle east, his fifth trip to the region in as many months. — Photo AP
ISLAMABAD, July 26: Finalisation of dates for US Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to Pakistan took a bizarre twist on Friday after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif personally got involved with the scheduling of the visit.
The Prime Minister’s Office, after Mr Sharif’s meeting with US Ambassador Richard Olson, first issued a statement saying Mr Kerry was expected in ‘next two days’. Hours later, the handout was amended and the revised one said the secretary would visit in 'a few days time’.
Mr Kerry, who postponed his June trip to Islamabad, had promised to visit in the last week of July to meet the newly-elected leadership for chalking the way forward in bilateral ties.
With the month’s last week only two days away, the two sides are yet to come up with a final date for the visit.
What’s exactly holding them up? One well-known reason is that Mr Kerry intends to visit Islamabad sometime in first week of August, but that does not suit Mr Sharif, who is planning to be in Saudi Arabia in those dates.
Mr Sharif had got the presidential poll, originally slated for Aug 6, rescheduled by approaching the Supreme Court because that date conflicted with his travel to Saudi Arabia. The change led to boycott of presidential election by opposition parties led by PPP. The boycott could have potentially cost the election its credibility had the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, the other major opposition party, not agreed to remaining in the contest.
Another angle emerged from the PM Office statement which said: “The Ambassador (Olson) shared with the Prime Minister (Sharif) US priorities relating to the visit.” A Foreign Office source disclosed that the schedule of Mr Kerry’s visit would be announced after a meeting of the foreign ministry’s top brass on Saturday, which would discuss the agenda shared by the US envoy.
This has led to speculations that the issues to be raised during Mr Kerry’s visit may be another cause of delay in finalising the schedule.
Prime Minister Sharif, the statement said, affirmed to the ambassador his commitment to a strong and cooperative relationship with the US.
He also reiterated Pakistan’s full commitment to all initiatives designed to promote peace and stability in Afghanistan.
Our Washington Corres pondent adds: The US State Department also is refusing to clear the ambiguity concerning visits to Pakistan by senior officials, although it did say that Secretary Kerry was still looking forward to his visit.
At the State Department’s regular press briefing, deputy spokesperson Marie Harf was pointedly asked if the secretary was planning to visit Islamabad on the 29th or 30th of this month.
“We’ve said repeatedly that the secretary looks forward to travelling to Pakistan when he can spend some time there discussing a wide range of issues, but I have no travel to announce at this point,” she said.
Asked if US Special Representative James Dobbins planned to visit Islamabad this weekend, Ms Harf said she had no “travel to announce for Ambassador Dobbins” either.
Mr Dobbins was expected to be in Islamabad over the weekend to discuss the revival of Afghan peace process and efforts for normalisation of Pak-Afghan ties. But so far, Islamabad did not know if he was coming as scheduled.
When he arrives, Ambassador Dobbins will also finalise the agenda for Mr Kerry’s visit.