US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s brief stopover at Islamabad — while en route to New Delhi, where the US and India held their first 2+2 dialogue and signed an important defence agreement, the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) — and his meetings with top Pakistani officials were important, not just in the bilateral context, but also in the context of South Asia, given the fact that terrorism and Afghanistan were high on the agenda. Pompeo, who was accompanied by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, met with the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, as well as the Pakistani Army Chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Qureshi and the US delegation led by Pompeo held the opening round of talks at the Pakistan Foreign Office, and this was followed by a meeting at the Prime Minister’s House with the PM Khan. Qureshi, Bajwa, and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Chief Naveed Mukhtar were also present at the meeting.
The US decision to in military aid on September 1, 2018, just four days before Pompeo’s visit, came in for heavy criticism from sections of the Pakistan media as well as the political class. Pompeo before beginning his South Asia tour categorically stated that Pentagon’s decision was along expected lines and shouldn’t have come as a surprise to Islamabad, given that the US had seen no substantial changes in Pakistan’s approach towards militant groups.
Earlier, a controversy had arisen out of a between Khan and Pompeo, in which, according to the US State Department, “Secretary Pompeo raised the importance of Pakistan taking decisive action against all terrorists operating in Pakistan and its vital role in promoting the Afghan peace process.” However, Pakistani denied that there had been any mention of terrorism during the course of Pompeo’s conversation with Khan. While speaking in Pakistan’s Parliament, Qureshi stuck to his stand, but also said that the Pakistan-US relationship was extremely important and that it was important to move on.
In July, Pompeo had also stated that there was absolutely to give money to Pakistan which would be used to pay off Chinese loans. Given the state of the Pakistani economy, which is currently in the doldrums, Pompeo’s statement sent shock waves in Islamabad.
Before landing in Islamabad, Pompeo tried to cool down the situation by saying that he was looking forward to new beginnings with PM Imran Khan and had already worked in the past with Foreign Minister Qureshi, who had also been the Foreign Minister during the PPP government, as well as with the Army Chief, General Bajwa. The Secretary of State did however make it clear that the US point of view would be put forward in a candid manner.
There were some very interesting aspects with regard to the Pompeo visit. First, Qureshi who had a one-on-one meeting with Pompeo did not raise the issue of the . While economically, this suspension does not mean much in terms of symbolism, it was still an important issue in Pakistan-US relations. Qureshi stated that this was a decision which had been made earlier during the previous Pakistani government and which the current government could not be held responsible for. Pompeo also made this point.
Qureshi also stated that harping on the was also not desirable, according to him, for a “free nation.” The narrative of reducing economic dependence upon the US has been gaining ground in Pakistan in recent years. In 2011, had spoken about the need for Pakistan to reduce its dependence upon the US. After the suspension of military aid by the Trump administration, a number of leaders of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) including , the current President of PML-N and brother of former PM, Nawaz Sharif, had argued in favor of reducing dependence upon US aid.
The current Pakistani government has played to the domestic gallery by emphasizing the need for a bilateral relationship based on “equality” and mutual respect.
Second, Qureshi also made the point that Pompeo met the PM and Bajwa jointly at the PM House, and this sent a very positive signal that the were on the same page. Qureshi made the point that foreign leaders had previously met the PM and the Pakistani Army Chief separately. While symbolically, Pompeo meeting the PM and the Army Chief jointly may seem significant, on key security issues, the Pentagon will reach out directly to the Pakistan Army. Here, it would be important to point out that Pompeo before reaching Islamabad did mention his familiarity with Bajwa. Interestingly, an army official also pointed to the fact that Pompeo was tougher on the civilian leadership as opposed to the army. One of the top Pakistani analysts, , while comparing Pompeo’s India and Pakistan visits made the interesting observation that while General Dunford engaged with the Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, the Pakistani Defense Minister was not present at the meeting.
Third, Qureshi referred to the US’ willingness to engage with the Taliban, that both sides agreed on this, and that there was scope to on this issue.
Essentially, Qureshi needed to do a balancing act. On the one hand, he could not afford to escalate tensions with Washington DC, and that explains why the suspension of military aid was not made a sticking point. At the same time, the Pakistani Foreign Minister needed to ensure that Pakistan looked good domestically, and that was why it was highlighted that the Pakistani army and civilian leadership were on the same wavelength, and that the US was willing to engage with the Taliban. Qureshi also stated that the recent meeting had helped to achieve a “reset” in ties. To strengthen this assertion, he repeatedly referred to the cordial atmosphere and the positive body language of the Americans, while also stating that the Pakistani viewpoint had been conveyed in a candid manner to the visiting delegation.
While there is no doubt that this meeting may have eased tensions. Pompeo made the point that he was optimistic that talks with the civilian leadership as well as army could lead to the improvement of bilateral ties between both countries. The had discussed the situation in Afghanistan, apart from urging Pakistan to take decisive steps against militant groups which are threatening regional security. Pompeo while striking a positive note with regards to the meeting was cautious, saying that in the past too many agreements have been signed between both sides, and now a lot will depend upon tangible results. According to a story in the , Pakistani officials had brought up the issue of the US favoring India, though predictably, this did not find any mention in the Pakistani press.
The meeting between Pakistani and US officials went largely along expected lines. The US needs to focus on reaching out more to the civilian leadership in Pakistan, and in this context, Pompeo’s reference to the “smooth transition of power to a new civilian government” as well as the relevance of “democratic institutions” is welcome. The current Pakistani government has played to the domestic gallery by emphasizing the need for a bilateral relationship based on “equality” and mutual respect. In the long run, the sticking point is likely to be the issue of terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil, and whether or not the current government acts against militant groups. (Of late, Beijing has also been pushing Islamabad to take more decisive steps against militant groups.) The attitude of the Trump administration towards IMF lending to Pakistan will play a crucial role in the bilateral relationship. A complete break-up between Washington and Islamabad is unlikely, but a significant improvement in ties at least in the short run seems unlikely.