Despite a fresh start, Pakistan-US relations nosedive
Controversy flares as US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and Pakistan premier Imran Khan issue contradictory statements
Pakistan Foreign Office’s attempts to fast-track the normalization of relations with Afghanistan, India and the United States are already encountering problems. In a seeming frenzy to meet the 100-day reform target set by the newly-elected leadership, blunders are being made one after another.
Even the first attempts at high-level interaction between Pakistan’s new government and the Trump administration managed to spark a controversy. After a goodwill call to new Premier Imran Khan from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the two sides issued conflicting statements about its transcript. The ensuing arguments led to doubt being cast on an upcoming, scheduled visit.
“Pakistan foreign office mishandled a routine issue and made a big fuss about nothing,” claimed a high-placed source in the foreign ministry. He added that the ministry also made an earlier blunder when they misconstrued India’s customary congratulatory message that stressed peace and development in the region. The foreign office, he said, misinterpreted this as an offer of negotiation on the core issues, and promptly replied in the affirmative.
“Last week, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said that the Indian Prime Minister had “sent an invitation for peace talks. Upon a denial from the Indian external affairs ministry, the stance of the Pakistan’s foreign ministry changed in less than an hour when a clarification they issued said that Qureshi was “misquoted” by the Indian media and no such invitation from India was received by the foreign office,” the source divulged.
However, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leadership denied having erred in interactions with the US and Indian administrations. PTI Punjab’s former president and a senior party leader, Ejaz Choudhry, told Asia Times that Chairman Imran Khan confirmed that Mike Pompeo did not talk about militancy during his telephone conversation. What transpired in the US state department’s media briefing in this regard, he said, was not based on the facts.
As far as India is concerned, he clarified, “in fact we sent two messages to the Indian leadership, one from the prime minister and another from foreign minister, telling them that Pakistan wants to resolve all the core issues including Kashmir through peaceful negotiations which is the only way out for a lasting peace in the Subcontinent.”
The row over the State Department call started when the US administration issued a statement on Thursday saying that Pompeo had pressed the new Pakistani leader to take “decisive action” against “terrorists” operating in Pakistan. He also sought Pakistan’s involvement in the Afghan peace process and hoped that the new administration will work with the Pentagon for a “productive” bilateral relationship between the two countries.
Hours after the US State Department issued the press release, Pakistan’s Foreign Office Spokesperson Mohammad Faisal in a tweet termed the readout as ‘factually incorrect’, saying that the conversation did not include any discussion of terrorists operating in Pakistan. “Pakistan takes exception to the factually incorrect statement issued by the US State Department on today’s phone call between PM Khan & Sec Pompeo,” he wrote.
Later in the day, when the State Department spokesperson was asked about how the Foreign Office in Islamabad rejected the substance of the statement and sought a correction, the spokesperson said that the department stands by its original readout. “The Secretary notes that he spoke with the new prime minister and expressed his willingness to work with them for a productive bilateral relationship. My understanding is that the beginning of the call or the call itself was a good call and a good discussion on working with the new administration,” state department spokesperson said.
Pakistan’s once-cordial relations with the US soured under the new South Asian regional policy spelled out by President Trump last year, when America’s palpable policy shift left Pakistan isolated.
After the new policy was announced, the US administration regularly demanded action against terror organizations taking shelter in the Pakistani territories.
“It was not a new phenomenon demanding such a knee-jerk reaction from the Pakistan’s foreign office,” a foreign ministry source revealed. He further added that even last week, the US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells urged Pakistan to play a critical role.
“The US official insisted that Pakistan should take tougher action to ensure that the Taliban come to the negotiating table rather than enjoying safe havens in the country, as the US strongly supports negotiating a solidarity document in an effort to improve ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan,” he added.
Khan is known to have a willingness to bring militants, including the Taliban, to the negotiating table. But to many observers, this begs the big question: how far will Khan be able to assert himself, while at the same time resisting pressure from the military establishment and religious hardliners who helped elect him?