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October 8, 2017

Shifting ties


October 8, 2017

Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif’s three-day visit to the US could not have come at a more opportune moment. Ever since US President Donald Trump announced that he would be sending more troops into Afghanistan and explicitly blamed Pakistan for helping militant groups, there has been a steadily escalating war of words between the two sides. Pakistan has not only pointed out its own sacrifices in fighting militant groups, it has also been defiant about no longer needing US aid should the situation reach such a point. The US went even further right before Asif reached Washington, with Defence Secretary James Mattis saying the Trump administration was prepared to work with Pakistan one more time after which it would take whatever steps where necessary. Mattis made another inflammatory statement after Asif left. He said the US opposes China’s One Belt, One Road initiative because, among other reasons, it passes through disputed territory in Pakistan – an apparent reference to the country’s northern areas. This appears to be a concession to India, since it has long claimed that the northern areas are a part of Kashmir although the US has never explicitly taken that line before. That it is now parroting Indian propaganda about Gilgit-Baltistan shows just how much of a shift there has been in the power dynamic in the region.      

Asif’s job was to try and build some trust with the US while making it clear we would not tolerate being accused of supporting terrorism. There were signs he may have had some success after his meeting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Both sides described the talks as “useful” and “positive” with the State Department using markedly more positive language than that employed by Mattis and others in the administration. However, Asif himself admitted that his talks with National Security Adviser H R McMaster were not as cordial, although he did not give any further details. Asif did succeed in getting across the message that Pakistan disapproves of the new US policy in Afghanistan and the “hollow” allegations against Pakistan. He was even more expansive in a talk at the US Institute of Peace where he mentioned Indian interference in Balochistan, the failures of the US war in Afghanistan and our own successes on the battlefield.

Trump’s Afghan policy had called on India to involve itself further in Afghanistan, something Pakistan is obviously not happy about. Even though trying to stop a closer US-India relationship will be difficult, Asif publicly pointed out that India is the one which is actually guilty of many of the charges framed against us. Pakistan is now in a position where it is just trying to keep the peace with the US rather than hoping for expanded ties. It was noticeable how this visit, unlike those during previous US administrations, did not even pay lip service to economic cooperation, trade and development assistance. Our relationship with the US now seems to be entirely transactional with both sides trying to tilt the other in their direction but without offering any concessions. In the coming weeks, Tillerson and Mattis will be visiting Pakistan and it is expected both will have tough words for us. This is how the relationship between the two countries will now play out, with the US playing the role of the tough cop and Pakistan making clear it has alternative diplomatic options like China.

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