A high-level U.S. defense delegation is scheduled to visit Pakistan and Afghanistan next week. Randall Schriver, assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, made the announcement Thursday evening at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington. Schriver, appointed to his current position by President Donald Trump in January 2018, attended the embassy’s annual celebration of Pakistan’s Defense Day.
Shriver said his intent, “and our team’s intent, is to be aspirational,” saying the parties would be “talking about where we can go in the future, how we can strengthen and improve cooperation, all the challenges notwithstanding.”
Shriver cited Pakistan’s contribution in several of U.S.-led security initiatives, noting “the very important work in trying to achieve peace in Afghanistan,” as well as Pakistan’s participation in a maritime security initiative known as Combined Task Force 150, a multinational effort led by the United States designed to “deter, disrupt and defeat attempts by international terrorist organizations” that seek to use the maritime domain as venues for attack or as a means to transport personnel, weapons and other materials. CTF 150 is based in Bahrain.
While U.S.-Pakistan relations, including, if not especially, military relations, have been turbulent in recent years, both sides seemed ready to look at the positive as Schriver announced his plans to visit Islamabad. Shriver cited “the shared sacrifices we’ve made as our two countries have been involved in the long war on terror,” adding “we have a strong foundation for this relationship” and “we jealously guard our special role in this relationship between our defense establishments and our militaries; we think it is one of the strongest pillars in the foundation for this relationship.”
Schriver described ongoing negotiations with the Taliban as being “at a critical junction,” stating “we’re hopeful but we have not crossed the finish line yet,” adding “we appreciate everything Pakistan has done to get us to this point.”
For his part, Pakistani ambassador to the United States Asad M. Khan told VOA that “this will be the highest exchange on the defense side after the prime minister’s visit, it is significant; as the assistant secretary himself said, defense is a key pillar of the relationship; I’m sure his visit will provide a good opportunity to both sides to review where we stand on the defense relationship and what more can be done.” Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan paid a high-profile visit to Washington and met with U.S. President Donald Trump in the Oval Office in July. Asked if Schriver would be meeting with Khan while in Islamabad, Khan replied that “I still don’t have all the details of the program; he’s an important visitor, we will try to get as many meetings as we can.”
Nolan Peterson, an incoming visiting fellow in unconventional warfare at the Heritage Foundation whose exclusive interview with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Afghanistan and Iran was published in The Daily Signal on Friday, told VOA in a phone interview that Schriver’s trip signals U.S. intention to stay engaged and maintain a strategic interest in the region even as talks are ongoing that could result in significant U.S. troop drawdown from Afghanistan.
That interest, he said, also has to do with “not letting China have free reign” in the region as the latter seeks to deepen its footprint through the “One Belt, One Road” economic and strategic initiative.
Peterson also pointed out that although the United States has not openly taken sides on the tension between Pakistan and India surrounding the Kashmir region, Pakistan “is going to be excited about having any U.S. visits,” which he thinks will “certainly play in their favor.” “Anytime a visiting U.S. official arrives in a country, countries like to use that as evidence that they’re being supported by the U.S.”
Ultimately, U.S. official visits to foreign capitals are designed to “keep us engaged and show the countries that we care,” Peterson said.
Pentagon officials told VOA that in addition to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Schriver will also be visiting Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan on his trip next week.
Meanwhile, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson on Friday announced that China’s foreign minister Wang Yi will lead a delegation to Islamabad from September 7-10 for the third trilateral dialogue between China, Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as visits to Pakistan and Nepal. Wang’s visit, the spokesperson said, is designed to further solidify bilateral friendship and mutual trust, and tighten the shared “common fate” between the two countries, including pushing for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to move forward “in a high quality manner.”