Beyond first impressions

With United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo due in Islamabad next week, both Washington and Islamabad have pledged to work together to mend their struggling relationship.

The impression was evident from the pronouncements by Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who has on multiple occasions emphasised the importance of ties with US and expressed his deep interest in positively engaging the American leadership, and statements by US officials including outgoing Amb David Hale. They have also expressed their desire for “turning page” in the relationship.

However, given the history of this relationship, the previous positions of Prime Minister Imran Khan as chief of Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf on Pakistan-US ties, and the perceptions of the Trump administration on Pakistan, the two have a long way to go on the road to fixing issues that keep upsetting their ties. Only a few days ago, both sides got a reality check in the form of a disagreement over the State Department’s readout on a conversation between PM Imran Khan and Secretary Pompeo. The secretary had called Khan to greet him on assuming the prime minister’s office.

Pompeo will be making a short stopover in Islamabad on September 5 while on way to India for the 2+2 talks

The State Department readout had said: “Secretary Pompeo raised the importance of Pakistan taking decisive action against all terrorists operating in Pakistan.” The claim was strongly contested by Pakistan’s Foreign Office and Foreign Minister Qureshi has, in his media interactions and while speaking in the Senate, said that the American claim was “contrary to facts.”

The State Department stood its ground and Foreign Office also did not budge. The Pakistani position, nevertheless, softened a bit and in a statement on the floor of the Senate, Qureshi contended that the mention of “terrorists operating in Pakistan” could be result of a mistake at some level. The new interpretation clearly reflected Qureshi’s desire to “move on” before Pompeo arrives.

The row over readout was minor in Pakistan-US ties that have witnessed bigger crises, but it definitely reminded both sides that the core irritant is terrorism and alleged terror sanctuaries. The Foreign Office claim that US misrepresented the conversation may have merit, but it is difficult to imagine that the Americans would not have raised the issue during their conversation given Trump administration’s singular focus on it. Moreover, one can hardly recall an American press statement over past few years, on engagements with Pakistani leaders, in which terrorism has not been mentioned, although the phrasing has kept changing.

The readout controversy may now be off our backs, but the real issues about terrorism and settling Afghanistan still need to be addressed. Qureshi may be too optimistic about rebuilding ties. The reality is, however, very different. Pompeo may be a senior official visiting the new government at the start, but two things need to be kept in mind. So far, no one higher than Pompeo has greeted the new government and secondly, Pompeo would be making a short stopover in Islamabad on September 5 while on way to India for the 2+2 talks. The maiden 2+2 sessions involving Indian and American foreign and defense ministers would lead to operationalisation of India’s status as America’s major defense partner. Therefore, it is not difficult to infer that notwithstanding US desire to engage with the new government, there is still not enough substance to build on it.

Nevertheless, there is an opportunity coming up. There are signs that after suffering setbacks, Trump’s administration is exploring the possibility of a review of its Afghanistan strategy. In the revised strategy, the US instead of exclusively fighting, as enunciated in the strategy announced last year, is thinking about talking to Taliban. Senior US diplomat Alice Wells has already held exploratory talks with Taliban in Qatar. Taliban leadership may have rejected the proposals received from US as old, but it is a sign that a new approach that involves dialogue is likely.

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Chairman Joint Chiefs Gen Joseph Dunford’s latest statement that US presence in Afghanistan “should not be seen as a permanent presence there” is also being looked at as another hint.

Pakistan has always supported dialogue and this is one reason that could provide ground for the two countries to work together for same goal. At the same time, reports about Trump’s administration considering appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad, a strong critic of Pakistan, sends out a very different message.

Whatever course things take in coming days and weeks, the only way forward is a sincere and transparent engagement. Foreign Minister Qureshi may be looking too eager for an engagement with US, but he is certainly right when he says: “Pakistan needs to understand the US demands and the US has to cater for our needs.”

The writer is a freelance journalistbased in Islamabad.


Published in The Friday Times , August 31, 2018.


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