WASHINGTON: Helping Pakis­tan deal with an “unquestionably challenging” economic situation is a top priority for the US, said US State Department Counsellor Derek Chollet.

In an interview with Dawn in Washington, Mr Chollet also emphasised the need to assist Islamabad in fighting terrorists, who had recently killed over 80 people inside a mosque in Peshawar’s Police Lines compound.

Mr Chollet, who conducts special diplomatic assignments for the US Secretary of State, is due in Islamabad next week for talks on a wide range of issues.

“For the US, it’s going to be about how we can deepen the partnership further and help Pakistan as it’s trying to deal with what is an unquestionably challenging economic situation,” said the senior US diplomat when asked what the top item on his agenda would be.

Pakistan, he noted, was still recovering from the floods, and was also dealing with an “emerging counterterrorism threat”, which has made the situation even worse.

State Department official says TTP also a threat to US interests

Mr Chollet pointed out that the US and Pakistan were already taking steps to further strengthen their ties which went through a phase of disengagement during the Afghan war but started improving soon after the withdrawal of US troops from Kabul.

“I believe the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) talks will be here in Washington in the last week of February, so the week after I’m back … and we will also hold a counterterrorism dialogue next month,” he said.

Pakistan and the United States signed TIFA in June 2003 to promote bilateral trade. In March 2022, they decided to relaunch the TIFA process to expand trade and investment in both goods and services.

The counterterrorism dialogue, which may be held in Islamabad next month, will focus on groups like TTP and IS-K, which have once again increased their activities in the region.

Mr Chollet agreed with the suggestion that the US was refocusing its attention on South Asia “because of its importance to American national interests, and because of its importance in the world”.

Last week, another State Department official, Victoria Nuland, visited India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, and now Mr Chollet is going to Bangladesh and Pakistan.

“It’s a signal of our desire to have stronger relations throughout the region, the importance we place on the countries of the region, the shared interests that we have, the shared challenges that we have to try to meet together,” Mr Chollet said.

“So, I am very much looking forward to my visits to Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Mr Chollet said that in Islamabad, he would hear directly from Pakistani officials about their needs, and about what they could be looking for the US and others to help with and how their allies can be helpful there. But the visit “is also to talk about the broader trajectory of the relationship and the way forward”.

Asked if TTP was also a threat to US interests, he said: “It is absolutely. The US rejects any form of terrorism by any group. And so, we believe the US and Pakistan have a shared interest in fighting terrorists.”

He also agreed with the observation that whenever terrorist activity began, it ultimately led to “greater instability, indiscriminate killing and attacks on US interests as well”.

Asked if the US was worried about the economic and security situation in the region, he said: “There are always things that we need to work on, challenges that we need to work on together, whether it’s the shared impact of climate change, or other issues.”

And of course, in Pakistan “we’ll be following up on my trip from last year. And the work we did in response to the floods, which is ongoing. But then also talk about the shared opportunities that we have together.

When reminded that Pakistan faced two major challenges, a feared economic collapse and terrorism, Mr Chollet said he discussed these issues with Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari when the latter was in Washington last week.

“And we’re following up with our Pakistani colleagues on that and we want to try to do what we can to support them,” he said.

Published in Dawn, February 10th, 2023

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