Pakistan FM Visits Washington to Shore Up Sagging Ties
By Iftikhar Hussain October 03, 2017
President Donald Trump's emerging Afghan policy has hit Pakistan hard in three sensitive areas: its tangled, acrimonious relationship with India, the denial that terrorist groups operate in its territory, and allegations that it is fomenting trouble in neighboring Afghanistan.
Islamabad contends that it has been an effective partner in the U.S. war on terrorism, has suffered greatly as a result and wants nothing more than a peaceful Afghanistan on its border. That's the message that Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif will most likely reiterate on a visit to Washington to meet with U.S. officials on mending tattered relations.
Pakistan is stinging from Trump's long-awaited policy, which focused on bolstering support for Kabul's fight against militants like the Taliban, fostering the growing relationship between Afghanistan and India, and pressuring increasingly conservative Pakistan to do more to root out militant groups, some of which have been linked to its intelligence services.
Delays in cobbling together the policy have coincided with efforts by Russia and China to increase their influence in Pakistan, leading Islamabad to ponder where its loyalties should lie, given that a full breakup with Washington would mean a cut in billions of dollars in U.S. aid.
"The most realistic policy is that Pakistan should strengthen ties with regional powers, including China, along with Russia, Iran and Turkey," analyst Mehmood Shah, a former Pakistani army brigadier, told VOA Deewa. "We have had a long friendship with America but we have only suffered loss in this friendship. We have not received any benefit out of it."
Now, Shah said, the U.S. "thinks it is necessary again to talk to Pakistan, and that makes me believe that Pakistan is still relevant and can play a role in Afghanistan. The U.S. is a superpower, and we do not need to be confrontational in our dealings with them. We should not have a strained relationship with the U.S., though the relations cannot be the same as they were before."
Asif left Pakistan on Tuesday. He will meet Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington to resume bilateral talks and to discuss ways to remove tensions that cropped up after Trump's August 21 speech on Washington's policy on South Asia.
No small task
"It is not going to be easy to pressure Pakistan to change course," said Sadanand Dhume, an expert on the Afghanistan-Pakistan region at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute. "All three countries – the U.S., India, and Afghanistan – have the same shared concerns about terrorism emanating from Pakistan.
"I think that all three countries are going to have to use a combination of methods," Dhume told VOA Deewa. "It includes more perhaps targeted sanctions at some point. It includes perhaps targeting these havens with drone strikes and other means. The main thing is to send a clear message to the Pakistanis, that what has been tolerated in the past will no longer be tolerated in the future."
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence met Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi late last month on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session. But when U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis recently visited New Delhi and Kabul, he did not stop in Pakistan, which many observers saw as a snub.
Matiullah Abasin, an Afghan political analyst, said Mattis' itinerary was aimed at telling Pakistan that it is losing Washington's trust and could find itself increasingly isolated if it does not change.
"The U.S. is not going easy on Pakistan anymore. Officials in the White House realized that Pakistan has been playing a double game for many years that needed to be stopped," Abasin said. "In addition, America is looking for a strong partner in the region, and India could be a potential and reliable partner for them."
Mattis said Washington would no longer tolerate terrorist safe havens and would work closely with India to tackle the problem in South Asia.
More problem than asset
"I think that it is very clear President Trump's administration certainly views Pakistan more as a problem than a potential helper, so to speak," said Michael Kugelman, an expert on the Afghanistan-Pakistan region at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center.
"I think it is very clear that Pakistan is no longer a priority in the U.S. policy for South Asia. It is very notable that Mattis went to India and then he went to Afghanistan, without a stop in Pakistan," Kugelman told VOA Deewa. "I do not think this means that the U.S. wants to forget about Pakistan. The U.S. is still interested in making things work with Pakistan."
India has long been Pakistan's prime nemesis – India's Kashmir region is a potential flashpoint for a fourth war between two nuclear-armed nations – so a warming of ties between New Delhi and Kabul is worrisome to Islamabad. So far, the Indian-Afghan relationship has primarily involved trade, and India has vowed it will not send troops to Afghanistan.
India has grown to become the third-largest exporter to Afghanistan, after Pakistan and Iran, and stepped in to provide air cargo services when Pakistan closed critical border crossings after terror attacks on its turf that it blamed on Afghan-based terrorists.
VOA's Deewa, Urdu and Afghan services contributed to this report.
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