ISLAMABAD - A senior American diplomat began a four-day official visit to Pakistan Sunday amid warming bilateral relations that have followed meetings last year between President Donald Trump and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.
The principal deputy assistant secretary, Alice Wells, is scheduled to discuss with senior government officials in Islamabad issues related to bilateral and regional concerns. She will also hold meetings with civil society representatives during her stay in the country, according to a pre-trip U.S. announcement.
The visit is part of a ten-day regional tour that has already taken Wells to Sri Lanka and India. It comes a couple of days after Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood's trip to Washington where he held talks with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien.
"Enjoyed meeting with Pakistani Foreign Minister @SMQureshiPTI today. We discussed countering Iranian aggression, the Afghan peace process, trade ties, and regional stability,” Pompeo tweeted after his talks with Qureshi on Friday.
Enjoyed meeting with Pakistani Foreign Minister @SMQureshiPTI today. We discussed countering Iranian aggression, the Afghan peace process, trade ties, and regional stability.— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) January 17, 2020
The warmth in long, close and turbulent U.S.-Pakistan relations stemmed mainly from Islamabad’s cooperation in facilitating Washington’s peace talks with Taliban insurgents aimed at bringing an end to the war in Afghanistan.
The Trump administration last month announced it would soon resume International Military Education and Training (IMET) programs for young Pakistani army officers. U.S. officials say they are also working together with counterparts in Islamabad to boost bilateral trade and commercial ties.
"We expect our bilateral relationship to continue to mature to one more focused on trade than aid, and we are continuing to target investments in ways that help improve the overall business climate,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA in an email.
She noted there is much room to grow the current $6.6 billion annual bilateral trade relationship, adding Washington looks forward to working together with Islamabad on energy and agricultural exports in 2020. The Trump administration sees the U.S.-Pakistan relationship as one of potential, she added.
"We have made clear that fulfilling that potential requires progress on our joint efforts to bring stability to Afghanistan and on Pakistan taking sustained and irreversible action against the militant groups and terrorist groups that destabilize the region from its soil,” the spokesperson stressed.
Pakistan hails IMET
The IMET was a part of U.S. security assistance for Pakistan worth some $2 billion that Trump suspended in January 2018 to press Islamabad to crackdown on militant groups on its soil and help in Afghan peace-building efforts. The overall security assistance remains suspended, however.
U.S. officials maintain the resumption of IMET, administered by the State Department, was meant to boost military-to-military cooperation between the two countries to advance “our shared priorities” of regional security and stability through concrete actions.
“U.S. decision to revive IMET is one more step in the right direction and reflective of our growing bilateral relationship,” Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesperson Aisha Farooqui noted in her official reaction.
Farooqui emphasized, however, the two countries needed to work for a “broad-based and enduring relationship, based on mutual trust and mutual respect.”
Washington credits Islamabad with helping to facilitate U.S. negotiations with the Afghan Taliban, mostly held in Qatar, to help bring an end to the 18-year-old conflict, America’s longest.
U.S. officials have long alleged the Taliban insurgency has organized itself militarily and logistically on Pakistani soil with covert support from the neighboring country’s military. Islamabad rejects the charges.
Latest round of meetings between U.S. and Taliban negotiators underway in the Qatari capital of Doha are said to have brought the two adversaries on the verge of signing a peace deal.
Khan 'Sort of' Trump of Pakistan
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally, has also called for offering more economic incentives to Pakistan to encourage it to do more to bring stability to Afghanistan. Graham noted after his last month’s visit to Islamabad that Pakistani leadership wants an end to the Afghan war to promote national and regional peace.“
Prime Minister Khan is a different kind of politician. In many ways he is sort of Trump of Pakistan. So, we got a magic moment here where we could persuade Pakistan to do things differently and give them an economic incentive they never had before to do things differently,” Graham told reporters after his last month’s visit to Islamabad.
Senator Mushahid Hussain, who heads the foreign affairs committee of the upper house of Pakistani parliament, says Washington’s emphasizes on broadening bilateral ties beyond Afghanistan and security-related cooperation will go a long way in resetting relations between the two nations.
"We welcome this American initiative as it doesn’t view Pakistan from the prism of geopolitics, rather, the focus is on people-centric development. This augurs well for future as it means 2020 will be promising for Pakistan-American relations,” Hussain told VOA.
Michael Kugelman, the deputy director Asia program at the Wilson Center in Washington, expects the trajectory of bilateral relations will be tied to the trajectory of U.S.-led Afghan peace efforts, pointing to the turbulent history of the U.S.-Pakistan partnership.“
Recent decades have seen a consistent pattern in U.S.-Pakistan relations: Washington frames its relationship with Islamabad through the lens of Afghanistan, while Islamabad seeks to get the U.S. to adjust that lens so that it looks at Pakistan through the lens of Pakistan alone,” observed Kugelman.
But regardless of the fate of Afghan peace process, critics say, the U.S.-China trade and political tensions are likely to weigh heavy also on U.S.-Pakistan relations.
While Beijing has traditionally maintained close defense partnership with Islamabad, the two neighboring allied nations have in recent years deepened economic cooperation under China’s trillion dollar global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)
Roughly $30 billion in Chinese investment, including soft loans and grants, has built or building highways, power plants, special economic zones, Gwadar deep-water Arabian Sea port and an airport there. The investment has come under the bilateral collaboration, known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship of BRI.
U.S. officials are critical of both CPEC and the BRI. In a recent statement, Wells said that the infrastructure development projects are burdening struggling economies like Pakistan with expensive Chinese loans that ultimately will turn into“debt trap” for recipient nations.
Islamabad and Beijing reject the criticism as unfounded and politically motivated.