WASHINGTON: The United States will place “reciprocal restrictions” on the movement of Pakistani diplomats in the country from May 1, forcing them to stay within 40km of the city they are posted in, a senior State Department official said on Tuesday.

In an interview with the Voice of America’s Uzbek service, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon said the United States was doing so because Islamabad had already imposed similar restrictions on US diplomats in Pakistan.

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“Typically, these kinds of restrictions are reciprocal in nature, so I’ll just leave it at that,” said Mr Shannon when asked if the US government was going to restrict the movement of Pakistani diplomats in the country.

Asked if the Trump administration had notified the Pakistani government, the senior US official said: “Our diplomats are under travel restrictions. They can travel further, but they have to notify the government of Pakistan.”

Mr Shannon tried to downplay the impact of the US decision by adding that such practices were “very common in diplomacy”, and instead of focusing on this the need was to look at continued engagement between the two countries.

“What’s important here, what’s important to note and underscore is that we’ve had some very fruitful conversations with the government of Pakistan about events inside of Afghanistan,” he said. “It’s my hope that we’re going to be able to build on those in a way that helps this broader reconciliation process.”

The Trump administration notified Pakistan recently that from May 1, diplomats at their embassy in Washington and at consulates in other cities would not be able to travel beyond 40km of their offices without permission.

According to this notification, diplomats would need to apply for permission at least five days ahead of an intended travel outside the imposed 40km radius.

US officials also reminded their Pakistani counterparts that Islamabad had already imposed similar restrictions on American diplomats in Pakistan, who were not allowed to visit the tribal belt or Karachi.

Pakistan, however, argues that those are not restrictions but security measures intended to protect American diplomats. They point out that the State Department too does not allow its diplomats in Pakistan to visit Fata, Karachi and certain other places in Pakistan out of security concerns.

In his interview to VOA, Mr Shannon also talked about the need for Pakistan to step up pressure on the militants who still had a presence in the country.

When the interviewer suggested that Central Asian countries wanted the US to “bring pressure on Pakistan” on this issue, Mr Shannon said: “I understand, but we’re not the only big partner. China is a very important partner and especially for Pakistan.”

Asked if Russia could also influence the decision-making process in Islamabad, he said: “It’s not as bigger partner as China is for Pakistan because Russia has a conflicted history in that region, but the US will be very happy to have a larger conversation with Russia about this also.”

Mr Shannon said that Islamabad also needed to understand the concerns of Central Asian countries about “remnants” of militancy in Pakistan.

“I’m not sure how much we can help that process because this is really something that the Pakistanis have to understand… but it will be much easier to work with Pakistan in attempting to fashion peace in Afghanistan as opposed to trying to fashion a way to fight the war,” he said.

The United States, he said, hoped to start a larger reconciliation process and wanted Pakistan to play a meaningful and important role in that process. “If so, it will open, I believe, the possibilities for deeper conversations especially with neighbours and especially with the Central Asian countries,” he added.

Published in Dawn, April 18th, 2018