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ISLAMABAD: US Secre­tary of State Mike Pompeo is reaching here on Wednesday to meet officials of the new government in Pakistan, but his brief stay in the capital, analysts fear, could be tense.

It would be the first high-level visit from Washington since the new government assumed office. Secretary Pompeo would be accompanied by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Joseph Dunford.

The trip, which has been preceded by a public spat over the State Department readout of Mr Pompeo’s phone conversation with Prime Minister Imran Khan and the US announcement about ending Coalition Support Fund (CSF) reimbursements, is taking place at a very tense time in the Pakistan-US relationship.

The bilateral relationship has been on the downslide for years now and the slide has been accelerating with the passage of time, but the positivity shown by the PTI government, which as compared to other political parties had a tough position on the ties with the US, created hopes of progress in ties. Those hopes were boosted by the growing realisation in Washington that its Afghanistan policy announced last year was not working and that they will have to engage with the Taliban for a political settlement of the conflict in Afghanistan.

But those hopes were shattered by the readout row and the end to CSF programme.

Looking beneath the surface one sees that it was little too optimistic of some to think that the US was looking to reset the relationship. Washington, the recent events show, is just maintaining an engagement with Islamabad out of its regional compulsions and pursuance of regional objectives.

The agenda of Mr Pompeo’s meetings in Islamabad is publicly not known and some in the government also say they are unaware of it, but the very composition of the delegation is enough to suggest that the talks the secretary of state plans to have here are dominated by security content.

Similarly, it needs to be kept in mind that Mr Pompeo chose to stay in Islamabad for a few hours much like then US president Bill Clinton’s visit during former president retired Gen Pervez Musharraf days, while going to New Delhi for two-plus-two talks, which would operationalise India’s status as a major defence partner of the US. Mr Pompeo may have taken a page out of the Clinton playbook, but he has missed the very basic difference that the former US president had come during a dictatorship, whereas now a democratically elected government is in place.

A senior Pakistani diplomat conceded that it would be a mistake to think that Mr Pompeo is coming on a goodwill visit.

The two episodes — cancellation of the CSF programme and the readout row — underscore one thing that the fulcrum of any future engagement would be cooperation to end war in Afghanistan. Pakistan is already committed to ending the conflict, but the two differ in strategies. Also, the other outstanding issue is growing closeness between Pakistan and China, which are otherwise the strongest allies in the region.

It is unclear to what extent the PTI-led government would be able to accommodate US concerns. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in his first presser had said that the US would have to listen to our concerns and Pakistan would have to keep in mind their requirements.

Published in Dawn, September 5th, 2018