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Efforts under way to reach out to Trump team

Updated December 05, 2016

WASHINGTON: With the arrival of a vanguard team in the US capital on Sunday, Pakistan launched a major diplomatic campaign to establish early ties with the Trump administration.

Some media reports claim that as part of these efforts, Pakistan is also considering the possibility of sending Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to attend US President-elect Donald Trump’s inaugural ceremony on Jan 20.

Officials at the Pakistan Embassy, however, say that while Special Assistant for Foreign Affairs Tariq Fatemi’s visit to the United States is the first of several planned in the early days of the Trump administration, it’s “still too early to talk about the PM’s visit”.

Mr Fatemi, who begins his official engagements in Washington on Monday, will also visit New York early next week for meetings with members of the Trump transition team. In Washington, Mr Fatemi will meet members of the new US Congress, elected last month, and officials of the outgoing Obama administration.

There are at least two people in the senior Trump team who are familiar with Pakistan and are aware of its importance in the fight against terrorism — the nominee for Secretary of Defence, James Mattis, and the proposed National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn. Mr Flynn, also a retired general, spoke about Pakistan’s role in the war against terrorism when he attended a qawali at the Pakistan Embassy in September.

But diplomatic observers in Washington say that while Pakistani visitors may find some ‘eager listeners’ both in Washington and New York, they will also have to face “some probing, if not hostile, questions from their hosts,” as one of the observers said.

Complications in bilateral relations

At a news briefing earlier this week, the White House described the US-Pakistan relations as complicated, telling journalists how President Barack Obama once expressed the desire to visit Pakistan but complications in the bilateral relationship prevented him from doing so.

And the incoming Trump administration’s election manifesto, so far their only official policy document, also highlights the complications that can continue to mar relations between the United States and Pakistan.

The document acknowledges the relationship as “necessary” but “difficult” but it also expressed the desire to “strengthen” the “historic ties that have frayed under the weight of international conflict”.

And in the next sentence, the document warns that the process of normalisation “cannot progress as long as any citizen of Pakistan can be punished for helping the War on Terror”. This, obviously is an oblique reference to the incarceration of Dr Shakil Afridi, who helped the US track down Osama bin Laden.

The document then raises a subject that sets alarm bells in Islamabad, Pakistan’s nuclear programme.

“Pakistanis, Afghans, and Americans have a common interest in ridding the region of the Taliban and securing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal,” the document says.

At the White House, Press Secretary Josh Earnest explained how the Obama administration had dealt with the complications that prevented it from rebuilding the frayed ties.

“The US relationship with Pakistan is one that’s quite complicated, particularly when you consider our overlapping national security interests,” he said. “The relations between our two countries, particularly over the last eight years, have not been consistently smooth, particularly in the aftermath of the raid on Pakistani soil that President Obama ordered to take Osama bin Laden off the battlefield.”

Mr Earnest, however, said that while “President Obama’s conversations with his counterpart in Pakistan have been an important priority,” he was unable to visit the country.

“At one point in his presidency, I do recall President Obama expressing a desire to travel to Pakistan. For a variety of reasons, some of them relating to the complicated relationship between our two countries at certain times over the last eight years, President Obama was not able to realise that ambition,” he explained.

Mr Earnest noted that a US president’s visit to a country sends a powerful message to the people of a country “and that’s true whether it’s some of our closest allies, or that’s also true if it’s a country like Pakistan, with whom our relationship is somewhat more complicated”.

The White House official said that when President Trump begins planning his overseas travel, “he’ll have a range of places to consider, and Pakistan would certainly be one of them” because “this obviously is an important relationship”.

Published in Dawn, December 5th, 2016