Pompeo Looks to ‘Reset’ Relations with Pakistan and Resolve Afghanistan Crisis

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo waves to the media during a photo opportunity prior to his meetings with Macedonian Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikola Dimitrov at the State Department in Washington, DC, August 21, 2018. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Pakistan on Wednesday for meetings with top officials and the new prime minister, Imran Khan. Pompeo told reporters his objective was to “reset” America’s troubled relations with Pakistan.

“New leader there, wanted to get out there at the beginning of his time in an effort to reset the relationship between the two countries,” Pompeo told reporters as he boarded the plane for Islamabad.

The Pakistani response to Pompeo’s visit was at least superficially encouraging, considering the United States just froze $300 million in military aid to Pakistan because its government is not doing enough to combat terrorist groups, particularly the Taliban and its allies.

Pompeo said while en route to Pakistan that Khan and his administration should not have been surprised by the suspension of U.S. military aid.

“The rationale for them ‎not getting the money is very clear,” said the secretary. “It’s that we haven’t seen the progress that we need to see from them and the very reason for this trip is to try to articulate what it is our expectation is. We need Pakistan to seriously engage to help us get to the reconciliation we need in Afghanistan.”

The Trump administration, including Pompeo himself, has also expressed reservations about authorizing an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout for Pakistan on the grounds that Islamabad would simply use the money to pay off gigantic loans from China.

“There’s no rationale for IMF tax dollars, and associated with that, American dollars that are part of the IMF funding, for those to go to bail out Chinese bondholders or China itself,” Pompeo said in late July.

Despite these tensions with the Trump administration, key Pakistani officials were upbeat after Pompeo’s visit.

“Various issues to deal with, but I think we are getting there,” Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said on Wednesday. “The first three months — we always knew the first three months were going to be tough. But we are on top of it.”

“I’m hopeful that the foundation that we laid today will set the conditions for continued success as we start to move forward,” Pompeo said after meeting with Khan.

Pompeo also met with his opposite number, Foreign Minister Mahmood Qureshi, who agreed with the “need to reset bilateral ties on the basis of mutual trust and respect.”

The State Department reported Pompeo discussed “regional peace and stability” with Qureshi and the importance of “strong democratic institutions” and “deeper counterterrorism cooperation” with Pakistani Chief of Amry Staff General Qamar Bajwa.

“The meeting was held in a positive environment. The perception of ‘do more’ or friction is factually incorrect. We presented a realistic stance to the US authorities. … We have given a clear message to the US that we all are on one page and we won’t get anything from the blame game,” Qureshi said at a press conference on Wednesday.

“I have decided to go to Afghanistan for my first international visit. We have been indicated that the US is ready to negotiate with Taliban,” the foreign minister announced.

“In all of his meetings, Secretary Pompeo emphasized the important role Pakistan could play in bringing about a negotiated peace in Afghanistan and conveyed the need for Pakistan to take sustained and decisive measures against terrorists and militants threatening regional peace and stability,” the State Department said.

The New York Times sensed a good deal of “skepticism” among the Pakistani political elite, noting that Khan defied pressure from some of his own officials to cancel the meeting with Pompeo.

The Times quoted Pakistani military officials who resent the allegation that they are not doing enough against the Taliban because they want a destabilized Afghanistan and aggressive Taliban as a check against American and Indian influence. Pakistani officials are keenly aware that Pompeo’s next stop after Islamabad is New Delhi. The Indians made a point of letting Secretary Pompeo know they were very, very happy to see him.

The Pakistanis say they have provided American troops with vital supply routes into Afghanistan and insist they have lost much of the influence they once had with the Taliban and associated militant groups that operate out of Pakistan’s tribal region.

“The Taliban don’t need Pakistan for safe havens, Afghanistan is a safe haven,” sneered one retired Pakistani general.

Two other challenges facing Pompeo are that Pakistan’s military and intelligence apparatus are something of a second government, only tenuously controlled by elected civilian leaders like Khan, and the growing influence of China. Pompeo’s insistence on “strong democratic institutions” to Pakistan’s chief of staff could be taken as a rebuke of the military’s political power.

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