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Spat aside, US-Pakistan dialogue channels remain open

Updated January 12, 2018

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ISLAMABAD: Pakistan and the United States are keeping channels of communication open in a bid to cool the row over terror sanctuaries that worsened with President Trump’s baffling New Year Day Twitter tirade.

“The two sides continue to communicate with each other on various issues of mutual interest at different levels,” Foreign Office spokesman Dr Muhammad Faisal said at a briefing on Thursday.

The US State Department had after President Trump’s tweet about getting nothing from Pakistan except “lies and deceit” despite paying $33 billion over the past 15 years suspended all military assistance for Pakistan. The freeze is likely to affect up to $900 million that Pakistan was to get this year from US in security aid.

But, soon after the announcement of the aid suspension, US Defence Secretary James Mattis disclosed that the Centcom Commander, who oversees the war effort in Afghanistan, was talking to Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa.

FO clarifies Asif’s remarks, saying he was only expressing his frustration at unwarranted accusations against Islamabad

The FO spokesman refused to go into the details of the talks saying they were being kept out of media glare. He wouldn’t either say at what level the talks were currently being held.

The two sides had earlier initiated a dialogue after the announcement of the new US policy for the region. However, the engagement ended last month without breaking the impasse. The process had started with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s meeting with Vice President Mike Pence on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Later, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary Mattis visited Islamabad, while Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif travelled to Washington for talks.

Dr Faisal, however, went on to clarify Khawaja Asif’s comments that Pakistan and the US were not allies.

“The foreign minister was expressing his frustration at the unwarranted US accusations against Pakistan and the unilateral decision to suspend the security assistance, despite Pakistan’s extraordinary sacrifices and contribution in the war against terrorism,” he said, echoing the State Department which had while announcing the aid suspension maintained that the move reflected President Trump’s “immense frustration”.

The spokesman recalled that despite provocative statements by the US leadership, Pakistan’s response had been measured, as it believes that continued Pakistan-US cooperation was crucial for the region’s stability, particularly for settling Afghanistan.

Dr Faisal, on two occasions, emphasised that both the US and Pakistan recognised the importance of the “lines of communication” passing through Pakistani territory, which American and coalition forces in Afghanistan used for delivering supplies to their forces there.

The spokesman’s assertion, however, points to what was possibly being discussed in behind-the-scenes bilateral talks.

It has been long speculated that Pakistan in response to US coercive actions could squelch the coalition forces’ supply lines in retaliation.

Defense Minister Khurram Dastagir had earlier this week in his speech at the Institute of Strategic Studies said that Pakistan enjoyed several leverages including the Ground Lines of Communication and Air Lines of Communication and Pakistan would use them at an appropriate time.

The understanding in Islamabad is that Washington would incrementally ramp up pressure and hence the officials here have been careful in playing their cards.

Besides, the spokesman said that the 11th Pakistan-Saudi Arabia JMC would take place in Islamabad on Jan 16-17.

Dr Majed Abdullah Al Qasabi, Minister of Commerce and Investment, would lead the Saudi delegation. The agenda, he said, was comprehensive with focus on exploring ways and means for enhancing bilateral trade, commercial and investment relations.

Published in Dawn, January 12th, 2018