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NEW YORK: Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi shakes hands with US Vice President Michael Richard Pence before their meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on Tuesday.—Online
NEW YORK: Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi shakes hands with US Vice President Michael Richard Pence before their meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on Tuesday.—Online

UNITED NATIONS: Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi met US Vice President Mike Pence on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday afternoon, launching a process that both hoped would help rebuild ties between the two nations, once close allies in the war against terror.

As the first step, the United States expressed its desire to send a delegation to Pakistan for talks on bilateral relations while Pakistan vowed to stay engaged with the US despite differences. Both sides also hoped that the process initiated on Tuesday would halt the downward trajectory that followed the Aug 21 launching of the new US policy for Afghanistan and South Asia.

At a news briefing for the Pakistani media, Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua said the Pence-Abbasi meeting was “an ice-breaker.”

In a carefully-worded statement, White House says Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with US effort in the region

Pakistan’s Permanent Represen­tative at the UN Maleeha Lodhi said the meeting was “an effort to put the relationship back on the rails”. She said Pakistan saw all such efforts as part of a process to normalise ties “and that process began with the meeting.”

The White House, however, issued a carefully-worded statement after the meeting, saying: “The Vice President and Prime Minister Abbasi had an important conversation about the President’s South Asia strategy that was announced late last month.”

President Donald Trump launched the strategy on Aug 21 in a live broadcast to his nation, blaming Pakistan for allegedly allowing terrorists to operate from its territories. He urged Pakistan to work with the United States to eliminate those terrorists.

President Trump also announced plans to send thousands of additional US troops to Afghanistan, reversing his earlier calls to wind down America’s longest war and withdraw US troops.

President Trump’s tough message, threatening Pakistan with economic and military sanctions if it fails to eliminate alleged terrorist safe havens from its soil, caused an angry reaction in Pakistan where some opposition leaders called for reassessing ties with Washington.

Since then, the United States has issued several statements, rejecting the suggestion that Washington wanted to disengage with Pakistan and President Trump’s Aug 21 speech was the first step towards it.

The White House statement on the Pence-Abbasi meeting said the US vice president “highlighted ways that Pakistan could work with the United States and others” to bolster stability and prosperity for all in South Asia.

“The Vice President reiterated President Trump’s belief that ‘Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort’ in the region,” the White House said.

Pakistan, however, issued a more detailed statement about this meeting, held on the sidelines of the 72nd UNGA session in New York, saying that the talks were held in a cordial atmosphere.

“Prime Minister [Abbasi] shared Pakistan’s concerns and views with regard to the US strategy for South Asia,” it said.

The two leaders agreed to work together to carry forward the bilateral relationship and discussed matters relating to peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region, the statement added.

“It was agreed that the two countries would stay engaged with a constructive approach to achieve shared objectives of peace, stability and economic prosperity in the region.”

In his opening remarks, Mr Pence also said that the US valued its relationship with Pakistan, which was a long-term partnership for security in the region.

“We look forward to exploring ways so that we can work even more closely with Pakistan and with your government to advance security throughout the region,” he told Abbasi.

In response, Mr Abbasi said Pakistan intends to continue efforts to eliminate terrorism in the area.

“We have made our contributions, we fought a very difficult war, we suffered casualties and have suffered economic losses and that is the message that we bring to the world,” he said. “We are partners in the war against terrorism.”

Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua told reporters that the meeting continued for 45 minutes, which enabled the two leaders to address various issues.

She said a US delegation will visit Pakistan next month to continue the process of bilateral dialogue. The US was ready to send two delegations to Pakistan last month for talks on the Trump speech but Islamabad asked Washington to reschedule the visits.

Asked if Islamabad was ready to welcome the visit now, Ms Janjua said she could not disclose all the details.

The foreign secretary said the prime minister also expressed concern over the greater role the new US policy advocated for India. He also talked about the concerns expressed during the parliamentary debate in Islamabad on the Trump speech and by the National Security Council.

“He also talked about terrorist sanctuaries in Afghanistan that are used for carrying out attacks inside Pakistan,” she added.

Ambassador Lodhi said there was “a point of convergence” between the two allies and “there’s a great need for both to discuss all issues.”

The foreign secretary said both sides realised the need to “revisit policies”.

The White House statement, however, did not address these points.

Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2017