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Can the US and Pakistan reset bilateral ties?

September 5, 2018

Pakistan's newly elected PM Imran Khan faces the first real test as head of government as he holds talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Islamabad. Khan's maneuvering options are, however, limited.

Imran Khan and Mike Pompeo

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US military chief General Joseph Dunford arrived in Islamabad on Wednesday to hold talks with Pakistani authorities, including Prime Minister Imran Khan, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Pakistan's army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

The security situation in Afghanistan, particularly Pakistan's shaky cooperation with the US, was high on Pompeo's agenda.

After Pompeo's meeting with his counterpart Qureshi, Pakistan's Foreign Office said in a statement that "discussions on bilateral, regional and international issues" took place in the meeting that lasted for about 40 minutes.

"FM Qureshi underscores the need to reset bilateral ties on basis of mutual trust and respect," Foreign Office spokesperson Muhammad Faisal stated on Twitter, adding: "Safeguarding Pakistan's national interests will remain supreme priority."

On Sunday, the Trump administration canceled a $300 million aid package to the Islamic country due to Islamabad's perceived unwillingness to act against militant groups.

The Pentagon's decision to scrap the package comes after US President Donald Trump said at the beginning of the year that his administration was suspending aid payments to Pakistan due to its supposed "lies and deceit."

Washington's heavy-handedness has not gone down well with Pakistani authorities, especially the military generals, who call the shots on defense, security and foreign policy matters.

A new face of Pakistan leadership

Former PM Nawaz Sharif, who had reportedly confronted his country's powerful army over the generals' alleged backing to a number of proxy jihadist groups, is now behind bars on corruption charges. His Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) party lost to the Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI, Movement for Justice) party in the July 25 general election, which allowed cricketer-turned-populist politician Imran Khan to take the reins of the South Asian country.

Read more: Opinion: Imran Khan's dangerous victory

Political analysts believe that Khan agrees with the military's security policies vis-à-vis Afghanistan and India. Since becoming prime minister, Khan has held three lengthy talks with General Bajwa over the security issues. It is therefore clear that the civilian government and the military spoke to Pompeo and Dunford with one mind.

But the US has also made it clear what it wants from Pakistan — that Islamabad takes decisive action against the militant Haqqani Network operating on its soil and whole-heartedly assists Washington in ending the 16-year-long war in Afghanistan.

Pakistan's Foreign Minister Qureshi said talks with Pompeo were cordial
Pakistan's Foreign Minister Qureshi said talks with Pompeo were cordialImage: picture-alliance/AP/Press Information Department

Read more: Direct talks with Taliban: 'US exploring all avenues,' State Department tells DW 

The refusal to comply with Washington's demands could be tricky for PM Khan, who has often slammed the US' Afghanistan policy and expressed his support for the Taliban.

"First stop Pakistan; a new leader there. I wanted to get out there at the beginning of his [Khan's] time in an effort to reset the relationship between the two countries," Pompeo told journalists on board his Pakistan-bound flight. The US delegation will spend more time in India, Pakistan's neighbor and arch-rival.

"I think it's important to meet the new prime minister, Prime Minister Khan, early on in his time in office," the secretary of state added.

Read more: US, Pakistan dispute whether Mike Pompeo talked terror with Imran Khan

But analysts say that keeping the diplomatic protocol aside, Pompeo is aware that the decision to support the US in Afghanistan is the Pakistani military's prerogative. Therefore, his talks with General Bajwa were considered more crucial than the exchange of pleasantries with PM Khan.

A deep lack of trust

"The US would like to see a stable Afghanistan, and Washington believes that the way to achieve that is to step up pressure on all terror groups that operate in the South Asian region," Husain Haqqani, former ambassador of Pakistan to the US, and director of South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute, told DW.

"This means targeting the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network and their allies, and also the so-called 'Islamic State' (Khurasan branch) inside Afghanistan, in the hope that once enough pressure has been applied on them militarily, the Afghan Taliban leadership may be more amenable to negotiations," the expert added.

"The US believes Pakistan provides safe haven to Afghan jihadists even as it acts against those Pakistani groups that attack inside Pakistan," Haqqani noted.

"The US policy for the last year has involved consistent pressure on Pakistan to act against terror groups that operate within its territory and also help bring the Taliban to the negotiating table."

Read more: Taliban: Haqqani network leader dead

But Pakistan complains its "sacrifices" in the war on terror have not been appreciated by the US.

"The US says we do not want to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Did we not bring them to negotiations in 2015? But the Afghan intelligence agency continues to work at India's behest," General (retired) Amjad Shoaib, an Islamabad-based defense analyst, told DW.

"Also, Pakistan's influence on Afghan groups has waned over the years. The Taliban have good ties with Iran and Russia. Why would they listen to Pakistan?" Shoaib said.

US to ‘reset’ ties with Pakistan

Changing regional alignments

In the past decade, Washington has moved closer to New Delhi with an aim to counterbalance China's growing influence in the region. Pompeo's South Asia visit is a testimony to India's importance for the US, as the secretary of state will spend more time in New Delhi on the second leg of his trip. Pakistan's army views the US' closeness to India with a lot of skepticism.

"The US wants Pakistan to be subservient to India; Pakistan will never accept that. The US and Pakistan are allies but US officials give more time to India," Shoaib said, adding that if the Trump administration gets tough with Pakistan, Islamabad has other options to explore. "We are no more dependent on the US for our military needs," the former military general said, indirectly referring to Pakistan's close ties to China.

But former Pakistan ambassador to the US, Haqqani, is of the view that "Pakistan has not kept its promises of acting against terrorism after decades of promising to do so and after receiving enormous amounts of military assistance and equipment." The US therefore cannot consider Pakistan a reliable ally, he said.

"The US argument is that Pakistan promised to act against terror groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani Network. If Pakistan refuses to act against these groups and instead provides them safe havens then why should the US continue to provide the military funding?" Haqqani argued.

"Decades of positive reinforcement, massive doses of economic and military aid and support in the international institutions has not led to any change in Pakistan's policies. The US now believes that maybe reversing these policies will force Pakistan to rethink its worldview and recalibrate its policies," he added.

Haqqani also said that the US' strategic dependence on Pakistan has declined as India, Afghanistan and Gulf countries have become US military and intelligence partners.

"There was logistical, technical or bureaucratic dependence on Pakistan in the decade after 9/11 as the US used Pakistani territory for supporting its troops inside Afghanistan. However, there was no strategic synchronization or dependence. Both sides had different goals and interests and this divergence has only increased. Decline in the number of US troops in Afghanistan means the US needs for supplying them through Pakistan have also diminished," the former ambassador told DW.

Khan's dilemma

Prime Minister Khan has long advocated a political solution to the Afghan conflict. Like Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Khan also wants a role for Islamists in the Afghan government.

The conservative politician also enjoys a degree of influence over the Taliban, as in the past, the militants had nominated him to talk to Pakistani authorities on their behalf.

But the Afghan situation is far more complex than how Khan has so far perceived it; the military's security briefing ahead of Pompeo's Wednesday visit must have made it clear to an inexperienced premier, say observers.

"Pompeo came with a tough message. If Pakistan does not pay heed to the demands of the international community, it will be further isolated," Tauseef Ahmed Khan, an international relations expert, told DW.

"Pakistan's economic situation is dire and the country urgently needs $12 billion for debt servicing. If Islamabad refuses to cooperate with Washington, it will not be able to get the loan from the International Monetary Fund. This will make it very difficult for Imran Khan to run the country," underlined Khan.

Read more: Pakistan's bailout becomes a pawn in US-China tensions

Additional reporting by Wesley Rahn, and Sattar Khan, DW's correspondent in Islamabad.

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