US looking for fresh start in ties with Pakistan

Updated October 28, 2019

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US President Donald Trump hosted Prime Minister Imran Khan at the White House and pledged to expand both political and commercial ties with Pakistan. — White House Flickr/File
US President Donald Trump hosted Prime Minister Imran Khan at the White House and pledged to expand both political and commercial ties with Pakistan. — White House Flickr/File

WASHINGTON: The Trump administration believes in extensive high-level engagements for rebuilding its ties with Pakistan, replacing the structured dialogue introduced by the Obama administration, says a senior US official.

At a recent briefing in Washington, the official also welcomed the establishment of a hotline between the Director Generals of Military Operations of the Indian and Pakistani armies and urged them to use it.

“The structured dialogue was a diplomatic architecture that was created under the Obama administration. And so, that was how the Obama administration approached its relationship with Pakistan,” said the US official when asked if Washington had plans to revive its structured dialogue with Pakistan.

“If you look under the Trump administration, we have had extensive high-level engagements and certainly Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Washington demonstrated that,” the official added.

The Obama administration had established various platforms for engaging Pakistan, which included ministerial and official-level talks in both Washington and Islamabad several times a year. There was also a separate forum for military-to-military talks.

The Trump administration, however, minimised its contacts with Pakistan in its first year but the engagements resumed when Washington sought Islamabad’s support for holding direct talks with the Afghan Taliban. And earlier this year, President Donald Trump hosted Prime Minister Khan at the White House and pledged to expand both political and commercial ties with Pakistan.

The two leaders had another meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly late last month and pledged to enhance bilateral ties.

“Based on the work we have done together in trying to promote a negotiated political settlement in Afghanistan, we have been able to expand our relations. We are looking at how, in particular, we can expand our trade and investment relationship,” the US official said. “And those contacts continue.”

Asked if Pakistan was going in the right direction in discouraging terrorism, the official said: “We have seen positive steps by Pakistan. For instance, under the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) action plan which required Pakistan to take 27 actions to avoid being placed on the agency’s so-called blacklist.

Responding to questions on President Trump’s offer to mediate between India and Pakistan on Kashmir, the official pointed out that in his recent meetings with Indian and Pakistani prime ministers, Mr Trump “discussed Kashmir directly”.

“He certainly is prepared to play a mediation role if both countries ask,” said the official, noting that India rejects outside mediation. “But certainly the United States will continue to encourage an environment that would allow for constructive dialogue.”

The official said that while the United States understood India’s position “but that does not mean that the United States is not actively encouraging that a dialogue take place and that an environment of constructive dialogue between the two countries be established”.

Asked if Washington supports India’s position that there can be no dialogue with Pakistan until Islamabad takes the steps that New Delhi wants it to take, the official said: “We think it’s important that Pakistan take sustainable and irresistible steps against terrorism.”

Despite these reservations, “it’s also possible to have a dialogue and we encourage the countries to engage as two nuclear powers living side by side,” the official added.

Responding to another question on Mr Trump’s mediation offer, the official said: “The basic point is, the president is engaged personally with the leaders of both countries.”

Such an engagement, the official said, was important for dealing with potential conflict between India and Pakistan. “The president has had meetings and phone calls. They have welcomed his engagements with them, and we are certainly going to encourage the steps that could lead to a constructive dialogue” between India and Pakistan, the official added.

Commenting on some low-level local elections held in India-held Kashmir this week, the US official said these “very local set of elections” could not be an alternative to restoring normalcy.

“With the leaders of major political parties in Kashmir under house detention, the question is … the restoration of the political process and when will those leaders be released,” the official said.

“We have urged that they be released immediately. There are no charges that have been brought against them. It will be important for true dialogue to take place that political leaders in Kashmir be able to meet and engage in political process.”

Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2019