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Pompeo: US seeks to ‘reset’ strained relations with Pakistan

Secretary Michael R. Pompeo speaks the 194th Foreign Service Generalist Class at the Department of State August 17, 2018. (U.S. State Department)
September 05, 2018

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has arrived in Pakistan just days after the Pentagon announced plans to suspend $300 million in aid to Islamabad.

On the eve of the visit, Pompeo said he hopes to “reset” tense relations with Pakistan when he meets with its new prime minister, Imran Khan, on his first official visit to the country.

Pompeo is scheduled to meet with Khan, a longtime critic of the United States, as well as Pakistan’s powerful army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, in Islamabad on September 5. He will be accompanied by General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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

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Increasing the pressure on Islamabad, the Pentagon announced this week it had taken final steps to cancel $300 million in assistance, in addition to $500 million already canceled. But U.S. officials said that the assistance could be quickly restored if Pakistan responded to U.S. demands.

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

The aid cuts are taking effect at a time when Khan’s new government, which took office last month, is facing a looming crisis over loan payments to Pakistan’s creditors.

Khan has been focused mostly on domestic issues, but he has long opposed the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and he vowed to revise relations with Washington upon taking office.

“We want mutually beneficial relations with the U.S., not one-sided,” Khan said in his victory speech on July 26.

In a sign that strains have continued since Khan took office, when Pompeo made a congratulatory phone call to Khan soon after his election, the prime minister’s office objected to Washington’s readout of the call, denying that Pompeo had raised the importance of “taking decisive action against all terrorists” operating in the country.

Pompeo was conciliatory in remarks to reporters traveling with him en route to Pakistan on September 4. He said he wanted to visit at the beginning of the former cricket star’s tenure “in an effort to reset the relationship between the two countries.”

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“We have worked closely with the Pakistanis in my role as CIA director, our teams have been working together for a long time,” said Pompeo, a former member of Congress who was recruited by Trump and quickly elevated to the top U.S. diplomatic post because of his loyalty to the president.

“There are a lot of challenges between our two nations for sure, but we’re hopeful that with the new leadership…we can find common ground and we can begin to work on some of our shared problems together,” he said.

“I hope we can turn the page and begin to make progress, but there are real expectations. We need Pakistan to seriously engage to help us get to the reconciliation we need in Afghanistan,” Pompeo said.

As part of Trump’s effort to resolve the 17-year war in Afghanistan, Washington has escalated pressure on Pakistan, whose assistance the U.S. believes is needed to compel the Taliban to agree to negotiate with the government in Kabul.

The insurgents have so far declined government overtures for peace talks this year, and instead have escalated violence against U.S. and Afghan forces.

At the start of the trip, Pompeo announced he was appointing veteran diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad to be his special adviser on Afghanistan, charged with promoting peace in the war-battered country.

Khalilzad, who accompanied Pompeo on the trip to Pakistan, will be focused on “developing the opportunities to get the Afghans and the Taliban to come to a reconciliation,” Pompeo said.

An Afghan native, Khalilzad was tapped by President George W. Bush to be his ambassador to Afghanistan after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2002. He then served as ambassador to Iraq and the United Nations. An ethnic Pashtun, he has been critical of Pakistan.

After visiting Pakistan, Pompeo travels to its archrival India, which has been developing increasingly close ties with Washington even as tensions have grown with Pakistan.

Pompeo has described India as “a true strategic partner,” and the key to the success of U.S. strategy of counteracting growing Chinese power in the Indo-Pacific region.

But relations with New Delhi have also been strained by Washington’s insistence that India comply with sanctions Trump imposed on Iran and Russia’s military this year by ending its purchases of oil from Iran and stopping its purchases of major weapons systems from Russia.