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Pakistan essential for bringing Taliban to talks: US official

Updated June 19, 2017

WASHIGTON: Pakistan is an ally on counterterrorism issues and will be essential for bringing the Afghan Taliban to the table for peace talks, says acting Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Tina Kaidanow.

“The United States and Pakistan have a close partnership on regional peace, security, prosperity and stability. And we continue to work with the government of Pakistan on areas — many areas of mutual interest, including counterterrorism,” adds the US State Department’s spokesperson, Heather Nauert.

And a retired US general, Douglas Lute, urges Washington to balance “our demands on Pakistan (with) … our other interests in Pakistan”, adding that “we actually have several interests in Pakistan (that)… surpass our interest in dealing with the Afghan Taliban”.

Many voices in Washington, however, are calling for cutting ties with Islamabad

These three are among a handful of voices that were heard in the US capital recently, emphasising the need to retain the US-Pakistan relationship as the Trump administration finalises a new policy for the Pak-Afghan region.

The voices that advocate severing ties with Pakistan, however, seem dominant. Some demand that Islamabad should be labelled a state sponsor of terrorism. Others want cessation of all military and economic assistance to the country. And some are urging the new administration to cancel the status of a non-Nato ally, conferred on Pakistan at the height of the US-led ‘war on terrorism’.

Most of the debates were held inside the US Congress, as various congressional committees arranged for key administration officials to defend their budget proposals for the next fiscal year. And during one of these debates, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson revealed that the administration was holding an inter-agency review of already dwindling US support and funding to Pakistan.

Indications are that while the United States may not sever ties with Pakistan or declare it a state sponsor of terrorism, it may impose new, strict conditions on financial support. Washington may also increase drone strikes inside Pakistan, particularly in retaliation to terrorist attacks in Afghanistan.

It was during one of these congressional meetings — when the demand for ending the US partnership with Pakistan increased — that Assistant Secretary Kaidanow explained why it was important to retain the ties.

“Pakistan is an ally on counterterrorism issues and would be essential in bringing the Afghan Taliban to the table for peace talks,” she told Congressman Ted Poe, a Texas Republican, who was leading the attack on Pakistan. But she added that a condition has been there since 9/11: do more.

Washington continuously pressures Islamabad over its alleged support for the Haqqani network, which is fighting the US-led Nato forces and the Afghan government. “This has been made clear to the Pakistani government at the highest levels,” she said.

Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican, asked Ms Kaidanow to explain how would the administration have justified giving weapons to Pakistan had Islamabad scrambled its US-made fighter jets during the US raid to kill Osama bin Laden.

Although in the 2018 budget proposals, the Trump administration has already cut allocation for foreign military financing to Pakistan, from around $265 million to $100m, Mr Rohrabacher was not happy. He wanted a complete ban on military financing for procuring weapons from the United States.

Also in recent days, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairperson Bob Corker reportedly said he was disappointed in the relationship and demanded a reduction in US aid to Pakistan. He was instrumental in blocking the sale of F-16 fighter aircraft to Pakistan with US aid.

The future of US-Pakistan relationship was also raised at the latest State Department briefing where a journalist asked the spokesperson to explain Secretary Tillerson’s announcement that the administration was holding an inter-agency review of its relations with Pakistan.

The comments received wide coverage in the Pakistani media, where it was interpreted as “the beginning of the end” of US-Pakistan ties, with some commentators suggesting that Pakistan should now learn to live without US support.

Ms Nauert, however, advised not to read too much into these comments. “I should show you our list of policy reviews taking place, because there are plenty. There’s the Iran policy review; there’s the Afghan policy review; Pakistan policy review is one of them,” she said.

“We are beginning an inter-agency review towards our policy on Pakistan right now. It’s part of an ongoing broader review of our national strategy for South Asia, which includes Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other countries.”

Published in Dawn, June 19th, 2017