U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says his mission to Pakistan is for both nations “to find a path forward together” and break the stalemate in Islamabad’s complicated relationship with Washington.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday on the plane while en route to Pakistan for talks with newly elected Prime Minister Imran Khan, Pompeo defended the Trump administration’s cut of $300 million in military aid to Pakistan, citing its lack of cooperation with the administration’s South Asia strategy.
“The rationale for them not getting the money is very clear, it’s that we haven’t seen the progress that we need to see from them,” Pompeo said. “And the very reason for this trip is to try and articulate what it is our expectation is, the things that they can do, the things that they expect us to do, and see if we can’t find a path forward together.”
Relations at low ebb
Bilateral relations between the United States and Pakistan have deteriorated to its lowest ebb in the past year, because of long-running differences over how to fight regional terrorism and bring an end to the 17-year-old deadly conflict in Afghanistan.
“We need Pakistan to seriously engage to help us get to the reconciliation we need in Afghanistan,” Pompeo said.
While announcing his South Asia policy last year in a bid to break the stalemate in the U.S-backed war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, President Donald Trump accused Pakistan of playing a double game, by covertly supporting the insurgency.
Pakistan consistently denies it is providing safe havens for the insurgents. It has also been pressing Washington to find a negotiated end to the conflict, saying the use of military force has failed to achieve the objective and instead encouraged terrorism in the region and allowed the Taliban to capture more Afghan territory in the process.
Along with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph Dunford, Pompeo is being accompanied on this trip by Zalmay Khalilzad, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan under former President George W. Bush. Pompeo said Khalilzad will join the State Department as a special adviser on the Afghanistan reconciliation process.
The American delegation will hold formal negotiations with Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and his team. Officials told VOA the visitors are also scheduled to hold separate meetings with Prime Minister Khan, who took the oath of office two weeks ago, and General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the military chief.
Foreign Minister Qureshi dismissed the administration’s reasons for withholding the $300 million, saying the money was not U.S. aid, but reimbursements for expenses incurred by Pakistan from its own resources for fighting regional terrorism in support of Washington’s counterterrorism efforts.
Qureshi says his meeting with Pompeo will provide an opportunity for the two sides to “exchange views” and try to improve strained ties.
The United States has now withheld $800 million from its so-called Coalition Support Funds since the start of the year. An American military training program for Pakistani officers also stands terminated and civilian financial assistance to Islamabad has already declined to zero, officials said.
Tensions, but ties remain
Despite persistent diplomatic tensions, analysts rule out a total breakdown of U.S.-Pakistan ties. They note that Washington’s military mission in landlocked Afghanistan heavily depends on ground and air lines of communications through Pakistan for ferrying key supplies to around 23,000 U.S. and NATO troops deployed in the neighboring country.
Afghan and U.S. officials have pressed Islamabad to use force against leaders and fighters of the Taliban allegedly sheltering in Pakistan to push them to engage in peace talks with the Kabul government.
Pakistani officials maintain the insurgents have gone back to the other side of the border in the wake of counterterrorism operations. Islamabad says it is ready to make all possible efforts and use its limited influence on the Taliban to encourage an Afghan peace dialogue.
But the Pakistan military has ruled out the possibility of launching operations against “residual” Taliban insurgents it suspects are sheltering among nearly 3 million Afghan refugees Pakistan still hosts.