Updated Sep 06, 2018 08:40am

Pakistan, US agree to make fresh start

Baqir Sajjad Syed

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan and the United States have decided to give reset in ties another shot after the positive initial engagement on Wednesday resulted in an understanding between the Trump administration and the new Pakistani government on delivering on each other’s expectations.

The positivity shown by the two sides after their meeting deeply contrasted the clouds of negativity under which US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Islamabad.

Mr Pompeo, who was accompanied by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Joseph Dunford, stayed in Islamabad for nearly five hours during which he met Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, and Chief of the Army Staff Gen Qamar Bajwa.

• Hopeful of finding a way forward, PM Imran says: ‘A sportsman always is an optimist’ • It’s time for Islamabad, Washington to deliver on joint commitments, US Secretary of State Pompeo says at the end of five-hour visit

The US delegation also held a meeting with Prime Minister Imran Khan. FM Qureshi, the army chief, ISI director general Lt Gen Naveed Mukhtar and other senior officials also attended the meeting.

At the meeting, PM Khan said he was hopeful of finding a new way forward with Washington. “A sportsman always is an optimist,” said the former cricketer, who captained Pakistan to World Cup victory in 1992, according to a pool report. “He steps on the field and he thinks he’s going to win.”

However, the inclusion of newly appointed US adviser on Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been hostile towards Pakistan and is also unacceptable to Taliban, in the Secretary Pompeo-led delegation raises questions about US seriousness about reaching a political settlement in Afghanistan.

The visit came in the backdrop of the recent row over the readout of the phone conversation between PM Khan and Secretary Pompeo and the US ann­ouncement about the reprogramming of the remaining $300 million reimbursement under Coalition Support Fund.

Speaking to journalists at the Foreign Office after Secretary Pompeo’s departure for New Delhi, Foreign Minister Qureshi said: “Today’s meetings set the stage for a reset. And the stalemate, which has been weighing down the relationship, has been overcome”.

He said the meetings were “productive” for “understanding each other’s point of view” and “cha­lking out the future course”. During the meeting, he said, the Pakistani side “understood their wishes” and presented its “expectations and concerns” in an amicable manner.

Mr Qureshi and Mr Pompeo will now meet in Washington later this month when the former travels to the US to attend the UN General Assembly session. Mr Pompeo invited Mr Qureshi for the visit. The invitation notwithstanding, Secretary Pompeo and Gen Dunford made no secret that military-to-military relationship would provide the actual basis for forward movement.

Speaking to journalists at the Nur Khan Airbase before his departure, Secretary Pompeo also gave a positive impression about his meetings. He said: “I’m hopeful that the foundation that we laid today will set the conditions for continued success as we start to move forward.

“We made clear to them that — and they agreed — it’s time for us to begin to deliver on our joint commitments, right. So we’ve had lots of times where we’ve talked and made agreements, but we haven’t been able to actually execute those. And so there was broad agreement between myself and Foreign Minister Qureshi, as well as with the prime minister, that we need to begin to do things that will begin to actually, on the ground, deliver outcomes so that we can begin to build confidence and trust between the two countries. That was the focus of the gathering.”

Secy Pompeo’s tweet before leaving Pakistan.

Gen Dunford said Secretary Pompeo visited Islamabad to “reset the relationship” and after the meetings he could say that “the objectives were very consistent between the Secretary and the prime minister, and General Bajwa”. He said military relations would be leveraged “to support the Secretary and the prime minister, and more importantly, President Trump’s South Asia strategy”.

Mr Pompeo, too, concurred with Gen Dunford on military ties acting as a prop for taking the planned rapprochement forward. He hoped that military-to-military ties, which had withstood the challenges in the cyclic relationship, could be used as “one of the foundational elements as well”.

Persisting challenges

Despite all the positive optics, both sides were candid enough to admit that challenges still exist.

The secretary’s five-hour-long visit may have set the stage for an effort to resolve the differences, but it was too short a trip to achieve substantive progress. The apparent cordiality was reminiscent of what was witnessed after Vice President Mike Pence’s meeting with the then Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi on the sidelines of UNGA last year, weeks after President Trump had announced South Asia policy, which rocked the ties. The two sides had on that occasion agreed on an engagement plan, which was also executed, but then ended at President Trump’s New Year tweet that accused Pakistan of “lies and deceit”.

Responding to a question at his presser, Mr Qureshi said: “I’m not painting a rosy picture. It would be wrong to say that we do not differ on many issues. But as a matter of fact there is a better atmosphere now to move ahead.”

The two sides have a divergence of opinion on the alleged existence of terrorist sanctuaries on Pakistani side. “It would be wrong to say that the entire problem lies on our side of the border,” Mr Qureshi countered.

The issue of terrorist sanctuaries was taken by the US side during the meetings. “Secretary Pompeo conveyed the need for Pakistan to take sustained and decisive measures against terrorists and militants threatening regional peace and stability,” US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said.

Secretary Pompeo, meanwhile, too conceded: “We’ve still got a long way to go, lots more discussion to be had”.

Way forward

The hope about the two sides making progress in ties hinges on their cooperation for peace in Afghanistan.

Pakistan is optimistically looking at the realization in the US that the Afghanistan strategy had not worked well and the resultant shift in its policy on dialogue with the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan has long advocated a peaceful and a political settlement of the Afghan conflict.

Referring to the new US inclination towards dialogue with the Taliban, Mr Qureshi said: “In it you can see an alignment and convergence of our positions. This is what Imran Khan has been saying for long that there is no other solution, but political settlement.”

Spokesperson Nauert said Secretary Pompeo underscored the role Pakistan could play in bringing about a negotiated peace in Afghanistan.

Ties with India

FM Qureshi said the US was asked to play its role for improvement in the Pakistan-India relations, especially the situation on the Line of Control, so that the focus on Western border with Afghanistan could be increased.

The foreign minister disclosed that he did not take up the issue of reprogramming of the remaining amount of CSF reimbursement, $300 million, out of “self-respect”. He added that the CSF reimbursements were ended sometime back and it was an “old issue”.

Mr Qureshi hailed combined meeting of the Pakistani civil and military leadership with the visiting American delegation as an exhibit of national consensus and the two sides being “on the same page”. However, later statements by the Foreign Office and State Department revealed that Gen Bajwa had also separately met Mr Pompeo and his entourage.

Published in Dawn, September 6th, 2018

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