Resetting of Pak-US relations underway

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Umer Farooq

ISLAMABAD:

The diplomats of Pakistan and the United States have started the process to “reset” strained relations between the two countries, for which clearly-stated terms are needed.

Delegation-level talks between started in Islamabad on Tuesday. Pakistani side was led by Foreign Secretary, Tehmina Janjua and US side by Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Secretary of State’s special envoy on Afghanistan.

Respective security, military and diplomatic officials were also present.

The talks focused on Afghan peace process and Pakistan’s possible role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table.

In the first week of September the senior officials of Pakistan and the US expressed the hope for “resetting” the relations.

President Donald Trump’s administration slashed military aid to Pakistan, citing dissatisfaction with its efforts to eliminate militant groups in the border region with Afghanistan and assist its neighbour in forging peace with the Afghan Taliban, whose leaders Washington claims use Pakistan as a safe haven — a charge Pakistan denies.

Increasing pressure on Islamabad, the Pentagon announced two months back it had taken final steps to cancel $300 million in assistance, in addition to $500 million already cancelled. But the US officials said that the assistance could be quickly restored if Pakistan responded to US demands.

Pakistan claims the billions of dollars it has received from the US in recent years is not aid, but rather reimbursement for resources Pakistan spent fighting terrorism.

Pakistani and the US militaries and intelligence agencies, in the meanwhile, have continued to cooperate at the tactical level in managing the Pak-Afghan border areas and in carrying out operations against the militants in these areas.

This tactical cooperation has hardly succeeded, however, in hiding the disappointment prevalent in official circles as far as the overall relations with Washington are concerned.

The visible deterioration in relations started to appear after Trump warned Pakistan of dire consequences.

Both countries, however, started using the diplomatic term, “resetting relations” after PTI government assumed power in Islamabad.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi is specifically most vocal in describing the efforts to rescue the relations as an attempt to “reset relations”.

Pakistani and the US official have been engaged in a quiet diplomacy to revive the relations since September 2017 speech of President Trump as a result of which the relations nosedived.

There was a discernible mood in Islamabad official circles in the last days of the PML-N government. It generally believed close relations with Washington were no more a possibility.

I interviewed a senior government minister for television in the wake of Trump’s speech and the off-camera conversation. He was full of complaints, but determined not to offend the US administration.

“They (Americans) simply don’t listen to us, but they are the sole superpower we cannot afford to antagonise them,” he said.

In the wake of Trump’s speech, the Pakistani government was so offended at its content that they cancelled its foreign minister’s scheduled visit to Washington and instead sent him to Beijing, Moscow and Tehran.

Islamabad also refused to receive US State Department officials. “We will have to consult our friends and weigh our options before we formulate our response to the new US-Afghan policy,” said an official statement before Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif went on a three-nation official tour.

The things started to change once PTI government assumed power the US officials started to openly express optimism about the relations and use the term “reset” for redefining the relations.

Former Pakistan Ambassador to India, Abdul Basit told ‘Daily Morning Mail’ the term “Reset” was first used to redefine US-Russia relations in order to redefine it to be free of tensions and recrimination.

“The term reset could be used to redefine Pak-US relations, but the problem is Pakistani officials seems more enthusiastic in using this term,” Abdul Basit, who heads the Islamabad based think-tank, IPRI.

Diplomatic experts say that both Islamabad and Washington have so far failed to spell out clear terms under which the relations would be “reset”.

In this situation Washington seems more interested in pressuring Pakistan to use its influence with the Taliban to bring them to the negotiating table.

Pakistan on the other hand is more interested in getting the US security assistance for its armed forces restored.