ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - A group of influential American senators and other top officials begun an official trip to Pakistan on Saturday by meeting with the country's military chief to discuss the situation in Afghanistan and efforts to strengthen Pakistan's border security.
The congressional delegation includes Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who is chairman of Senate Arms Services Committee; South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham; and Indiana Democratic Senator Joe Donnelly.
After the group met with General Raheel Sharif, the army chief reiterated that "a stable Afghanistan is in Pakistan’s interest," and that the relationship between the two countries was a key to regional peace.
Pakistan and the United States have long had uneasy relations. Ties have been strained recently over allegations that Pakistan’s counterterrorism operations focus only on militants linked to the anti-state Pakistani Taliban, and that Islamabad is not doing enough to uproot sanctuaries linked to Afghan militants, including the Haqqani Network terrorist group.
The alleged lack of progress on preventing Afghan insurgents from using Pakistani soil also recently prompted the U.S. Congress to stop the Obama administration from subsidizing the purchase of eight F-16 fighter planes it had promised to Islamabad.
Speaking prior to Saturday’s visit by the U.S. lawmakers, Army spokesman Lieutenant General Asim Bajwa insisted that Islamabad was committed to cracking down on militant groups involved in the Afghan conflict.
“Pakistan is not at all sheltering anyone and Pakistan is not aiding anyone, is not allowing its soil to be used for attacks across the border,” he said.
Relations have particularly deteriorated after the May 21 U.S. drone strike that killed leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akthar Mansoor, in Pakistan.
Officials in Islamabad remain critical of the drone attack, insisting it derailed the efforts Pakistan was making to arrange peace talks between the Islamist insurgency and the Afghan government.
In a recent public talk in Washington, Richard Olson, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, again defended the Mansoor drone strike, dismissing criticism that it signaled waning U.S. interest in the peace process.
“This strike should make clear to all parties in the region that the United States is fully prepared to protect its interests," said Olson, who accompanied the U.S. lawmakers in Saturday’s talks in Rawalpindi, where the military is headquartered.
"Mullah Mansoor was an obstacle to peace, posed a continued threat to U.S. persons through his support for operations against U.S. forces, and was perpetuating a war without end,” Olson said.