US Envoy Donald Blome
US Envoy Donald Blome

ISLAMABAD: The new United States ambassador to Pakistan, Donald Blome, on Monday signalled Washing­ton’s intention to move on from the regime change controversy by engaging in a robust two-way communication with the country’s government, political parties and civil society.

Ambassador Blome, who arrived in Pakistan late last month, has taken over the charge of the US mission at a time of unique challenges and opportunities.

Though anti-American sentiments run deep in Pakistani society, the feelings got inflamed after former prime minister Imran Khan alleged that he was ousted through a US conspiracy for regime change and ran a mass campaign calling for 'freedom' from 'slaves of foreign powers'. This heightened anti-American sentiment has, therefore, become the foremost challenge for Washington in executing its foreign policy goals in Pakistan.

But then, newer opportunities have also emerged. Ambassador Blome — the first full-time American envoy in Islamabad after a gap of almost four years — assumed the charge of his assignment when Afghanistan is apparently no more a dominant issue in the bilateral ties following last year’s withdrawal of US forces from there at the end of 20-year-long war — the longest in American history.

Counterterrorism cooperation to remain ‘defining feature’ of ties

Ambassador Blome, in an interview with Dawn, reiterated the rejection of Mr Khan’s 'regime change' allegation and said Washington was “very clear” about that.

“However, I think the best thing we can do going forward is to keep engaging across all levels of Pakistani society, as we have for the past 75 years!” he said, adding the engagement wouldn’t be limited just with the government, but will extend to political leaders, the business community, civil society, and the youth.

In this two-way communication, he said, he will “listen to and understand” what’s happening here and “convey that understanding” to Washington and at the same time share US “views and positions as clearly and as transparently as possible” with audiences here.

Beyond polarisation in the domestic politics on US ties, the new government in Islamabad has always been open to revitalising bilateral relations. The first opportunity that came in its way in the shape of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s invitation for Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari for attending a food security conference at the United Nations was clinched.

Mr Bhutto-Zardari and Mr Blinken also met on the sidelines of the conference in New York on May 18, which was the first highest level face-to-face contact between the two sides in months.

Ambassador Blome disclosed that “a number of follow-ups” were being planned on the basis of the agenda set by the two foreign ministers at their meeting.

“I will do some of that here, and I expect we will see a variety of US visitors to Pakistan in the coming months to build on it further,” he said.

In what appears to be a step towards the resumption of structured bilateral dialogue that has been suspended for long, the two sides are set to launch the US-Pakistan Health Dialogue in Washington for deepening their cooperation on health issues.

The ambassador recalled the “partnership” between the two countries against the global Covid-19 pandemic as a good example of cooperation on health.

US had donated more than 61 million Covid vaccine doses, $69m in financial support, and an additional $9m in in-kind assistance to support Pakistan’s fight against the pandemic.

“We can build on this work not just in assistance but through growing private sector partnerships in the health field,” the envoy added.

Much like the emphasis on investment and trade during the foreign ministers’ meeting, Ambassador Blome too said that he was “committed to promoting further development of our bilateral trade and investment”.

He further identified health, climate, and education as other areas where cooperation could be expanded.

But, at the same time, it was too obvious from the discussion with him that counterterrorism cooperation will remain a defining feature of this relationship for some time to come.

Ambassador Blome said US was seeking “a strong partnership with Pakistan on counterterrorism” and expects from Islamabad “sustained” and indiscriminate action against all militant and terrorist groups.

The ambassador was specifically asked to clarify if US pursuit for strengthening counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan included negotiations over drone basing access closer to Afghanistan, but he avoided a direct reply.

“The United States is committed to preventing the reemergence of terrorist threats, in Afghanistan or anywhere else. Fighting terrorism is a global effort. We will continue to engage partners, allies, and key states around the world on how best to address terrorism,” he said while referring to President Joe Biden’s statement in which he had talked about developing capabilities and deploying assets in the region to prevent the re-emergence of terrorists from over the horizon.

On Afghanistan, the envoy said, US would work with Pakistan to “press the Taliban to prevent terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a base for external operations and to meet the international community’s expectations — including pressing the Taliban to adhere to their counterterrorism commitments, form an inclusive government, and protect the rights of women and girls”.

Ambassador Blome welcomed Pakistan’s “ongoing efforts in countering the financing of terrorism and prioritising anti-money laundering measures”.

His remarks come ahead of Financial Action Task Force’s plenary meeting in Berlin from June 14. The global illicit financing watchdog will review the progress made by Pakistan, which has been on its ‘grey list’ since June 2018.

Published in Dawn, June 14th, 2022

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