ISLAMABAD - The United States appears to be easing public pressure on Pakistan in a bid to encourage the country to help promote peace and reconciliation with the Taliban to bring an end to the war in Afghanistan.
The optimism, analysts say, stemmed from Wednesday's rare telephone conversation U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held with Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
The two leaders discussed ways to advance bilateral relations, said State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert. She said "the need for political reconciliation in Afghanistan, and the importance of targeting all militant and terrorist groups in South Asia without distinction," was also discussed.
Pakistani officials describe Bajwa's first direct conversation with Pompeo as "positive and productive."
On Thursday, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence called Pakistani caretaker Prime Minister Nasir ul-Mulk to congratulate him on assuming office and conveyed "good wishes" from President Donald Trump.
An official statement said Mulk and Pence "agreed upon the importance of strengthening bilateral relations as well as pursuing the common objective of achieving peace and stability in Afghanistan."
The prime minister told the U.S. vice president his caretaker government is committed to holding free and fair elections scheduled for July 25 and the smooth transition of power to the constitutionally elected new government.
Relations between the two uneasy allies in the "war on terrorism" have deteriorated since August when U.S. President Donald Trump announced his South Asia Strategy. The policy blamed Pakistan for not preventing Taliban and members of the terrorist Haqqani network from launching attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan, charges Islamabad rejected.
While Washington has cut civilian assistance to Pakistan and suspended all military aid in January. Both sides have recently imposed tit-for-tat travel restrictions on each other's diplomats and have had no high-level political contact until Wednesday when Pompeo called Bajwa.
Analysts say the U.S. statement issued after the phone call marked a significant departure from Washington's traditional stance regarding terrorist groups allegedly running sanctuaries in Pakistan.
"[The] Trump Administration seems to be easing public pressure on Islamabad by not using its standard Pakistan based groups' accusation and by replacing it with a more general reference to South Asia," said Talat Hussain, Pakistani television talk show host and columnist.
"The aim appears to be to create more space for a peace process in Afghanistan inclusive of the Haqqanis," Hussain observed. "This is placing diplomacy above guns and negotiations before fighting."
Just two days before Pompeo spoke to Bajwa, the Pakistan army offered to use "whatever leverage" Islamabad has to try to get Afghan insurgents to the negotiating table for peacefully terminating the war.
Army spokesman Major-General Asif Ghafoor acknowledged Pakistan's relations with the United States "are under stress", but said his country would still like U.S. forces to succeed and go back from Afghanistan "with a notion of victory."
But Ghafoor said the goal is achievable only through political means, because neither side is in a position to win the war on the battlefield.
"The Afghan Taliban cannot conquer Kabul militarily, but no force can eliminate all of them either to bring peace to Afghanistan. So, there has to be a midway to achieve a political reconciliation acceptable to all sides," Ghafoor noted.
War on terror
"Whatever leverage Pakistan has [over the Taliban], although it is receding with the passage of time, we will try to use it to help find an amicable solution for Afghanistan," the general noted. "But the Afghan government will have to play the lead role in any such effort, together with America who is the main stakeholder by all means."
"No one desires more than Pakistan to see peace in Afghanistan,"the Pakistan military spokesman said. "We want the U.S. to go back from Afghanistan with a notion of victory, a notion of success. We don't want them to leave behind a chaotic Afghanistan like they did before."
Ghafoor said sustained military-led operations have pushed out or eliminated all terrorist groups on Pakistani soil, including the Haqqani network, and "organized infrastructure" of any terrorist organization. Pakistan has suffered tens of thousands of casualties, including security forces, while countering terrorism, he said.
U.S. officials allege the Haqqanis maintain ties to the Pakistani spy agency, charges Islamabad vehemently rejects. The militant network has long been an integral part of the Afghan Taliban. The leader of the Haqqani network, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is believed to be militarily guiding the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.
Ghafoor noted his country has secured its traditionally volatile regions along the nearly 2,600-kilometer Afghan border, saying ongoing fencing and construction of new forts will further boost security and prevent illegal cross-border movements and terrorist infiltration.