ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s new government, headed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, says it seeks deepened economic, trade and political ties with the United States despite differences over how to conduct joint anti-terror efforts. Ahead of an expected visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, a key member of Pakistan's cabinet tells VOA that close cooperation is also vital for a smooth security transition and stability in neighboring Afghanistan after most American troops leave that country by the end of next year.
Pakistan has been a vital partner in the U.S.-led war against terrorism but its role has always been marred by controversies mainly because of allegations Islamabad never broke ties with the Islamist Taliban leading the insurgency in Afghanistan.
However, Islamabad and Washington have come closer in recent months in a bid to jump-start long-awaited peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The efforts faced major setbacks in recent weeks but officials in Islamabad expect that Kerry's visit might resurrect the Afghan reconciliation process. It came to a halt because of President Hamid Karzai’s objections to the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar in June.
In a wide-ranging interview, Pakistan's minister for planning and development, Ahsan Iqbal, told VOA that as Afghanistan's immediate neighbor, his country will be the first to suffer in the absence of a smooth security and political transition. He noted the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and subsequent civil war in the 1990s caused up to four million Afghans to seek refuge in Pakistan. He said about three million refugees still live in the country, a strain on the national economy, while the dislocated population is also partly blamed for the rise in militancy on both sides of the border.
“Therefore, we need to work very closely. We need to have great cooperation between United States, other NATO countries and Pakistan so that we can manage this transition in a peaceful manner," said Iqbal. "My greatest worry is not just 2014, but post-2014 because in the last 10 years there was a big war economy which was constructed in Afghanistan and, as the [foreign] forces and the military withdraws from Afghanistan, this war economy will collapse and this is going to cause many dislocations. Now again, if there is an influx of Afghan refugees or unemployed Afghan youth who come to Pakistan, we would have very serious implications," said the minister.
Pakistan sees ties as critical
Iqbal said strong ties with the United States, particularly in economy, energy and trade, are critical for Pakistan. He said there are a number of U.S.-funded projects in place as part of efforts to help Pakistan overcome its energy and power crisis. But the Pakistani minister dismissed suggestions that the recent warming of his country’s traditionally strong ties with neighboring China are meant to move away from the relationship with the United States.
“There are some areas in which cooperation of U.S. is not substitutable. For example, [the] United States is a major export market for Pakistan's textile sector, and we would like to develop it further," he said. "Similarly, the opportunity of learning in the universities of [the] U.S. is also second to none. We would like more and more of our young boys and girls to have access to higher education in [the] U.S. Similarly, we think that in attracting foreign investment [the] United States has been a major investor in Pakistan and we would like to promote our trade as well as investment of [the] United States in Pakistan.”
Officials in Pakistan hope Kerry's visit will boost efforts to revive a bilateral strategic dialogue that has seen intermittent suspensions since 2006. The process suffered major blows when the U.S. military unilaterally acted to track down and kill Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistan two years ago. A few months later an American airstrike mistakenly killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan border, further straining relations.
The United States began the wide-ranging strategic dialogue in 2006 to help Pakistan overcome financial losses it was suffering because of its participation in the war on terror. The dialogue seeks close cooperation in a range of fields including economy, trade, energy, defense, security, counterterrorism, education and agriculture.
Islamabad estimates that more than 40,000 Pakistanis, including security force members, have died because of a militant backlash to the country’s decision to join the U.S.-led anti-terrorism campaign. Also, it contends, the nation's economy has suffered multi-billion-dollar losses due to rising insecurity.