WASHINGTON: Senator Bob Menendez, who heads the Foreign Relations Committee of the US Senate, has asked America’s top diplomat to arrange President Joe Biden’s much-delayed call to Prime Minister Imran Khan, adding that maintaining a strong relationship with Pakistan was important.

“I think it would serve us well to have such a conversation,” said the senator while speaking at an event in New Jersey at the residence of a board member of the American-Pakistani Political Action Committee, Dr Tariq Ibrahim. “And, you know, when we have these conversations, they are honest, and that means they are also transparent,” he added.

The statement reflects a major change in Senator Menendez’s stance as only last month he demanded a review of Pakistan’s Afghan policy. Addressing Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a congressional hearing on Sept 15, he said: “We need to understand the double-dealing by Pakistan and providing a safe haven to the Taliban.”

Now he is asking the same person to arrange the much-delayed Biden-Khan conversation. Explaining why he was now asking Secretary Blinken to arrange the call, he said: “Where there is agreement, we build upon it and where there is disagreement, we talk about how we get through that disagreement.”

This reflects change in Senator Menendez’s stance as he earlier demanded review of Pakistan’s Afghan policy

This, he said, was “an extraordinary moment in which this is a relationship that can be rebuilt to what it once was,” during and before the Afghan wars when Pakistan was one of America’s closest allies.

“And if we can rebuild on it, I hope, we can expand on it — not just about Pakistan in the context of a military or security dimension, but much greater,” he said.

Explaining how this relationship could be made “much greater”, he noted that Pakistan had “an incredibly large population that is very young; there is tremendous opportunity to build upon the economic dynamism that we create”.

And “that’s what I look forward to, being able to continue promoting as your US senator,” Senator Menendez told his Pakistani supporters.

The statement follows a CNN report earlier this week that the US was close to formalising an agreement with Pakistan to use its airspace for conducting operations in Afghanistan.

The report claimed that the Biden administration shared this information with US lawmakers at a confidential congressional hearing in Washington on Friday.

Pakistan, however, denied closing such a deal. “No such understanding is in place,” Foreign Office spokesperson Asim Iftikhar said in a statement.

“Pakistan and the US have long standing cooperation on regional security and counterterrorism and the two sides remain engaged in regular consultations.”

Reports in the US media pointed out that the US military already uses Pakistan’s airspace for intelligence-gathering operations and a formalised agreement would guarantee that this access would continue.

A US scholar, Michael Kugelman, however, said in a tweet that “if the US and Pakistan do sign a deal formalizing the US use of Pakistani air lines of communications for counter-terrorism in Afgha­nistan — and that’s a big ‘if’ — then that’s the type of thing that could lead to the elusive Biden-Khan call.”

But diplomatic sources in Washington said that a call by President Biden was not a big enough incentive to make Pakistan take such a big decision.

The sources noted that the other incentive — helping improve Pakistan’s relations with India — was also unlikely to lure Pakistanis as they knew Washington could not persuade India to soften its attitude on sensitive issues like Kashmir.

Published in Dawn, October 27th, 2021

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