Shahid M Amin
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Islamabad on September 05, 2018, accompanied by General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He held talks with Prime Minister Imran Khan, Foreign Minister Qureshi and Army Chief General Bajwa. His basic purpose was to meet Pakistan’s new leadership and assess in which way US-Pakistan ties would be heading in the immediate future. Relations have been going downhill for some years but suffered a major setback when President Trump issued a Tweet in January 2018 in which he accused Pakistan of “lies and deceits” to secure $33 billion in aid over last 15 years while “giving safe havens to the terrorists that fight the US in Afghanistan”.
Since then, diplomats on both sides have worked to repair the damage to relations between two countries that have been allies for several decades. Pakistan held new elections in July 2018 that saw the ouster of the PML(N) government. But the US could hardly take comfort from coming to power of Imran Khan who had in the past taken anti-US positions including blocking of access route of US/NATO forces in Afghanistan. In his post-election speech, Imran said he sought a “balanced relationship with the US, benefitting both countries” but reasserted that “so far, our relations with the US have remained one-sided where the US thinks that it gives aid to Pakistan to fight its war in the region and that approach has caused a huge loss to Pakistan.” Imran Khan’s analysis seemed to be the opposite of that of Trump in terms of who has deceived whom.
Keeping in view this background, the good news about Pompeo’s visit is that fears that matters would deteriorate further were proved wrong. Both sides sought to give a positive spin to the outcome of talks and sounded optimistic. Both said they had agreed to “reset” their bilateral relations. Pompeo told newsmen: “we talked about their new government, the opportunity to reset the relationship between our two countries across a broad spectrum, including business ties and ending the war in Afghanistan. And I’m hopeful that the foundation that we laid today will set the conditions for continued success as we start to move forward.” Imran Khan said, “I’m a born optimist. A sportsman always is an optimist. He steps on the field and he thinks he’s going to win.” Foreign Minister Qureshi was even more optimistic in his press briefing. He claimed that the lingering deadlock in ties with the US had been broken. He reported “forward movement” and insisted that the US side made no demand to “do more” against the terrorists. The talks were held in a “cordial and positive” environment. He brushed aside the impression that there was tough talking from either side.
However, it soon became apparent that the two sides had differing versions about the talks. The US Embassy issued a statement while Qureshi was addressing the media, which said that “In all his meetings, Secretary Pompeo emphasized the important role Pakistan could play in bringing about a negotiated peace in Afghanistan, and conveyed the need for Pakistan to take sustained and decisive measures against terrorists and militants threatening regional peace and stability.” Pompeo told newsmen that “we made it clear to them –and they agreed—it’s time for us to begin to deliver on our joint commitments.” But he added: “We’ve still got a long way to go.” The comments by General Dunford before the talks were also revealing. He said Trump’s South Asia strategy set clear expectations for Pakistan, including help to drive the Taliban to a peace process in Afghanistan. “Our bilateral relationship moving forward is very much going to be informed by the degree of cooperation we see from Pakistan in doing that.”
Pompeo proceeded from Islamabad to India for a longer two-day visit. The joint statement issued after that visit was unwelcome from Pakistan’s point of view. Both sides asked Pakistan to ensure that its territory was not used to “launch terrorist attacks on other countries.”
The conclusions to be drawn from the foregoing narrative are, firstly, there is a desire in both the US and Pakistan to reset their relations, overcome the past bitterness and move towards a friendly cooperative relationship. Secondly, our Foreign Minister is overly optimistic in asserting that the US has dropped its oft-repeated “do more” demand. Perhaps, this precise wording was not used but, in substance, the US expectation remains that Pakistan should take more action against terrorists on its side of the border. Our media has made “do more” an emotive issue, but the fact remains that, despite our successes against terrorists, they have not yet been fully eliminated and the hard ground reality is that we are still fighting them. Thirdly, the focus of US expectations from Pakistan at this time is less on action against alleged terrorist sanctuaries; it is more on getting Pakistan’s help to bring the Taliban to negotiating table.
Some experts believe that the US will continue to stay indefinitely in Afghanistan because of its resources and geostrategic location, but all visible indications are that Trump wants to wrap up US presence in that country and end the longest war in its history. However, a total defeat would humiliate both the US as a super power and Trump personally in his ambition to be seen as a strong leader. Washington is, therefore, looking for a face-saving exit from Afghanistan, a political compromise in which Taliban agree to share power with other Afghan groups. This is where the US sees a role for Pakistan. It believes that the Taliban leadership lives in Pakistan, recalling that Taliban’s supreme leaders Mullahs Omar and Mansoor died on Pakistani soil. The feared Haqqani group is alleged to be in our tribal areas. Imran Khan and the US are now on the same page in wanting a political solution, but can Pakistan persuade the Taliban to join talks for a political settlement? Our relationship with USA would improve or deteriorate depending on progress on this specific issue. In this context, Zalmai Khalilzad’s appointment as the US special envoy for Afghanistan is not reassuring because of his past anti-Pakistan views.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.