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US, Pakistani foreign ministers fail to break Afghanistan impasse

The US continues to demand more commitment from Islamabad on the Afghan peace process. The new Pakistani government shows willingness but has yet to act conclusively. Anwar Iqbal reports from Washington.

On Tuesday, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security advisor John Bolton in an attempt to revive relations between the two countries amid tensions involving Afghanistan, the resurgence of the Taliban and the US cutting off Pakistan's military aid

In September, the first round of US-Pakistan talks was held in Islamabad, during which Secretary Pompeo expressed the desire to "reset" a rapidly deteriorating relationship between the two countries, while urging Pakistan to stop cross-border attacks into Afghanistan if it wants better relations with the US.

According to a statement released by the Pakistani embassy in Washington after the Tuesday meeting, Pompeo and Qureshi "agreed that the time was ripe for the Afghan Taliban to avail the opportunity for a political settlement by seizing the opportunity for dialogue."

Another statement, issued after Qureshi's meeting with Bolton, said that "Pakistan would continue to support the efforts for an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan."

The statement also underlined Pakistan's desire to revive a structured dialogue with the US that has remained suspended since February 2016.

"Going forward, a broad-based and structured framework for dialogue would best serve the two countries' shared interests," Qureshi reportedly told Pompeo.

"He reiterated Pakistan's support for a political settlement in Afghanistan, noting that the use of force had failed to deliver results," the official statement added.

US wants more on Afghanistan 

While the US acknowledges Pakistan's verbal support for the Afghan peace process, it also complains that Islamabad does not match its words with action and allows militants – particularly the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network – to launch cross-border attacks into Afghanistan.

Qureshi said that peace in South Asia, which is a common goal of both the US and Pakistan, "would remain elusive until all disputes, including the core dispute of Jammu and Kashmir, were resolved."

The US acknowledges the need for a peaceful resolution of all India-Pakistan disputes but says that Washington can only play a role in promoting peace between the two nuclear-armed states if both ask it to do so. India rejects any external mediation in its disputes with Pakistan.

According to the Pakistani statement, at the end of the meeting, Pakistan and the US "agreed to remain engaged with a view to achieving their shared bilateral and regional objectives."

Diplomatic circles in Washington interpreted this as indicating that both sides have agreed to continue with talks but that key issues remain unresolved after Tuesday's meetings.

"Qureshi's body language showed that he was under pressure," said Faiz Rehman, a former head of Voice of America (VOA) Urdu, who now contributes to various think tanks as a South Asian affairs analyst. Rehman also noted that while Americans had not yet commented on the meetings, the Pakistan Embassy "issued a very routine and probably just a re-hashed statement from a previous meeting."

In previous statements, US officials have indicated that they want Pakistan to support their efforts to ensure the continuity of the current setup in Kabul. To ensure this continuity, the US has invited the Taliban to participate in this setup through the Afghan peace process and wants Pakistan to persuade the Taliban to do so.

Read more: Why Taliban won't make peace with Kabul

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Regional issues

The Americans also believe that there can be no peace in Afghanistan as long as India and Pakistan continue to fight for influence in that country. According to some sources, China's role in South Asia, particularly its growing influence in Pakistan, was one of the topics discussed at the two meetings.

Read more: India and Pakistan clash in UN over terror support

The new Pakistani government headed by Prime Minister Imran Khan is believed to have reassured American negotiators that they do want to play a positive role in Afghanistan and would do whatever they could to persuade the Taliban to join the Afghan reconciliation process. But Pakistani officials also think there is the need for the US to address their concerns too, particularly about India's growing influence in Afghanistan.

Read more: How would the US deal with a 'Prime Minister Imran Khan'?

The US can play a role in restarting India-Pakistan talks, although pressure on the eastern border could dilute Pakistan's focus on the western border, where it has deployed hundreds of thousands of troops for combating the Taliban and other terror outfits.

Pakistani officials also explained why the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a Beijing-led multi-billion dollar initiative, was important for Pakistan's progress.

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

Media reports had claimed that Islamabad and Washington would discuss a possible prisoner-exchange — Shakil Afridi for Aafia Siddiqui – but so far neither side has confirmed or denied these claims.

Michael Kugelman, a senior associate at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center, told DW that such an exchange is unlikely. "Trump is keen to get Afridi released, and Pakistan may be inclined to release him. But it would likely want something in return," he said, adding that it would be doubtful that the Trump administration would swap Aafia Siddiqui."

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