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WASHINGTON: All thorny issues were on the table when Finance Minister Ishaq Dar met US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster at the White House on Tuesday afternoon for consultations which the minister hoped would improve the relations between the United States and Pakistan.

“These were very comprehensive talks,” said the minister. “Security, defence, regional issues, Pakistan-India relations, Kashmir, Afghanistan, you name it, we discussed it.”

Noting that it was the first official meeting in Washington between representatives of Pakistan and the Trump administration, Mr Dar said: “This is a composite discussion. All topics were discussed and very positively.”

‘Both sides aired their grievances at meeting’

The finance minister had to don a new cap, that of the prime minister’s special envoy, for the meeting, which obviously was not centred on financial issues.

“Friends do have complaints and differences (gilay-shikway), so we had them too, as did they,” said the minister in an obvious attempt to lower the intensity of his talks at the White House. But his remarks, and those of US sources contacted by Dawn, indicated that neither side showed any reluctance in putting forth their grievances. Yet, both maintained a cordial tone during the hour-long conversation.

Mr Dar had taken the ambassador as well as the Pakistan Embassy’s defence attache with him while Gen McMaster came with Lisa Curtis, who looks after South Asian affairs at the National Security Council, and another senior member of his staff with him.

Later, at a news briefing at the embassy the minister described the meeting as “very positive talks between two willing partners”, but conceded that there were “some irritants and stalemates” in the relationship. He also reminded the media representatives, eager to know the details of the talks, that the United States was still “one of Pakistan’s largest partners”, both politically and economically.

“We told them that we are committed to peace in the region,” said Mr Dar while explaining how Pakistan had launched Operation Zarb-i-Azb to eliminate terrorism from the tribal areas and Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad to eradicate it from the rest of the country.

“We have killed many high-value targets and lost thousands of precious lives,” he said. “No country has sacrificed more than Pakistan in the war against terror.”

When asked if the Americans had asked him to stop the alleged cross-border movement of militants from Pakistan into Afghanistan, Mr Dar said: “We will not allow our territory to be used against any country, but no other territory should be used against our territory either.”

Pressed for more information, he said “a third country should not use the Afghan territory against Pakistan” and recalled that attacks at the Army Public School, Peshawar, and recent attacks in Sehwan Sharif, Quetta and Karachi were carried out from sanctuaries inside Afghanistan.

The minister did not endorse or deny the suggestion that Pakistan was looking for an arrangement that would stop cross-border attacks on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border.

“We brought them to this [issue] because Pakistan believes that as its soil should not be used for attacking others, somebody else’s soil should also not be used against Pakistan. Anti-Pakistan elements should not have a free hand in Afghanistan.”

He said that Pakistan was moving forward “on a fast track” with its operations against terrorists and would not allow “those working against Pakistan’s interests, to use its territory or violate its sovereignty.”

“There will be no tolerance for such persons or groups,” he added.

Asked if the Americans also asked the Pakistani team to consider their demand for releasing Dr Shakil Afridi, who helped them locate Osama bin Laden, the minister said: “We cannot discuss certain things in public, not appropriate to do so. But this issue was discussed, cannot deny that.”

He did not say what was his team’s response to this demand but he assured the nation that the government would only do what was in the best national interest.

“We never compromise on national interests...,” he said.

Pakistan, he said, had “deep and strong” relations with both China and the US.

Published in Dawn, April 27th, 2017