WASHINGTON - Pakistan pledged Wednesday to support negotiations with the Taliban to end Afghanistan’s 17-year war as it asked the United States to restore military aid and stop blaming Islamabad for the extremists’ strengths.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi visited Washington to explain the Afghanistan strategy of new Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has long advocated talks over military action with the Taliban and other insurgents.

A month after Washington cut $300 million in military aid, Qureshi said he found Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “ready to listen” to Pakistan and said he was returning to Islamabad “slightly more hopeful” than before.

The United States has pressed for years for Pakistan to crack down on militant groups involved in Afghanistan. It says the insurgents have safe havens in Pakistan’s border areas, accusations which Islamabad has repeatedly denied.

Qureshi said Pakistan would act “in good faith” to jumpstart diplomacy with the Taliban, whose representatives held a breakthrough meeting in July in Qatar with US representatives in a tentative bid to try to end the longest-running US war.

“Pakistan is willing and Pakistan will use all its influence to do that. We feel that Afghanistan’s stability and peace are linked to ours,” Qureshi said at the US Institute of Peace a day after meeting Pompeo. But he added: “Contrary to the largely held view here, our influence on the Taliban is diminished.”

He said he believed that the Taliban’s shift to negotiations, as well as an unprecedented if temporary ceasefire, was based on the militants’ own calculations. “Even the Taliban recognise that things have changed in Afghanistan. They can at best maintain a stalemate but those days are gone when they will just go in and take over Kabul.”

Qureshi said Pakistan “cannot and should not be held responsible for the failures in Afghanistan” as he pointed to disunity in the Kabul government as well as corruption. “I have seen or read a lot of criticism and think it’s unfair not to recognise the contributions Pakistan has made to the successes that you’ve had in Afghanistan - and you’ve had successes despite the challenges,” he said.

Calling for renewed cooperation with the United States, Qureshi said: “Cutting off training, not giving precision equipment that could have been used against terrorism - I don’t know to what extent that will help.”

According to VOA, Qureshi said his talks with senior Trump administration officials were “useful” and helped “halt the slide” in the crisis-hit bilateral relations. He, however, acknowledged the war in Afghanistan dominated his discussions with Pompeo and Bolton.

“I have come to the conclusion that my [country’s] bilateral relations with the United States are dependent on the improvement of the situation in Afghanistan,” Qureshi said. “If I go back with this impression that I have been able to halt the slide, to me that would be an achievement,” he said when asked whether he was able to achieve his goal of resetting the ties.

Qureshi told the audience that the US emphasis on finding a negotiated settlement to the Afghan war is what Pakistan has long called for because military means have failed to end the 17-year-old conflict.

The top Pakistani diplomat said promoting a peaceful settlement of the Afghan war was the collective responsibility of all stakeholders in the turmoil-hit country.

Qureshi said Pakistani security forces have dismantled “the safe havens.” Instead, he said, anti-Pakistan “safe havens” that exist today in Afghanistan “under your [US] watch” are a concern for his country. “We cannot and should not be held responsible for the failures in Afghanistan, whether it’s poor governance, corruption or disunity within the Afghan government. They have contributed to the challenges,” he said.

Qureshi noted that despite deterioration in Islamabad’s relations with Washington, ground and air routes through Pakistan remain open and vital for ferrying supplies to US-led international forces stationed in landlocked Afghanistan.

“The continued support that we are giving has not only saved billions of dollars, it has contributed to your success in Afghanistan. Over 500,000 containers went through Pakistan, and cargo was treated as diplomatic cargo,” Qureshi asserted.

In his speech Wednesday, Qureshi acknowledged that the recent appointment of veteran US diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad as the new envoy for political reconciliation in Afghanistan had raised hackles in Pakistan because of his unfriendly statements in the past.

“I would urge him to be more sensitive to the opinion in Pakistan. Obviously as individuals we can say what we want to, but once you have an official position, then you have to be more restrained and you have to be more sensitive, because then only can you be an honest broker,” Qureshi said.

Qureshi said Pakistan and the United States need to bridge the trust deficit and build on their history of cooperation for achieving shared objectives, including peace and stability in war-torn Afghanistan.

“I am going back with positive view of hope and change,” he said. “Individually, we might not be able to achieve what we want to. Collectively, in my opinion, we can.”

“We have to trust each other,” the minister said, adding history is witnessed to the fact that both countries benefitted when they worked together, be it Cold War, Soviet invasion or decimation of Al-Qaeda.

The minister said there had been highs and lows in bilateral relations and the past two years had been difficult, but the two countries have to rebuild and improve relations to achieve collective objectives of peace, reconciliation and stability.

Referring to the criticism Pakistan has faced in US circles, the minister described it as unfair and said that Pakistan’s contribution to the success of the US in Afghanistan has not been recognised.

He said as many as 950 Al-Qaeda terrorists were killed and Pakistan handed over more than 1,100 terrorists to the United States.

Citing reports about 87 percent increase in narcotics in Afghanistan, he said that was an issue of concern to Pakistan. The minister invited US Congressmen to come to Pakistan and visit areas of their choice in the tribal belt to see for themselves the change that has been made possible by the country’s relentless fight against terrorism.

He offered the US lawmakers to pick areas where they want to go and the government will facilitate their visit to see if there were any safe havens there. “It is important if they go and see and form an opinion,” he added.

Reiterating Pakistan’s position on the Afghan issue, he said we want to see a democratic, progressive, peaceful and inclusive government in Afghanistan, adding it was for the Afghan government to decide that. “We have no favourites in Afghanistan,” he added.

He said there were still 2.7 million refugees in Pakistan and the government believes that their return in a time-bound manner will contribute to peace and stability in Pakistan.

He spoke about the initiative of Afghanistan, Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS) launched in July this year that provides a structured and institutionalized mechanism for continuing dialogue to address the issues between the two countries. “If we want peace and stability in Afghanistan, then good neighbourly relations are critical,“ he said.

He said in spite of problems and the continuing provocation on the country’s eastern border, Pakistan has deployed 200,000 on its western border with Afghanistan and the military operations carried out in the tribal areas have been recognised as successful.

He said there was a new government in Pakistan, which has a people-centric agenda of socio-economic development but, he added, it was only possible if there was peace and stability on both sides of the border. “We want peace and stability; that is the priority.”

Underscoring Pakistan’s efforts in the fight against terrorism, he said the country had made considerable progress, which has not happened overnight. He said Pakistan had achieved success against terrorism, because there was a shift in public opinion, formed after terrorists targeted schoolchildren and attacked forces and innocent people.

He said this new debate led to the National Action Plan against terrorists as all Pakistanis agreed that we have to take them on. He said because of the political consensus, it was possible to make a constitutional amendment to set up the National Action Plan.

The minister also briefed media at the Pakistan Embassy at the conclusion of his visit to the United States during which he represented Pakistan at the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly.

He told reporters that his visit to Washington was very successful, adding he was able to convince the top US officials and lawmakers that the cooperation between Pakistan and the United States was must to achieve success in Afghanistan. The minister said it was essential for the two countries to improve their relations.

The minister said he has directed Ambassador Ali Siddiqui to help revive Pakistan’s Caucus in Congress and there has to be at least 50 senators and lawmakers in the group.

Responding to a question, he said whenever there was talk about Dr Shakeel Afridi case, there was talk about Dr Aafia Siddiqui. He said any decision on Dr Afridi has to be in accordance with the country’s laws.

After the press briefing, the minister left Washington to return home.

 

NEW US AFGHAN ENVOY HEADS TO QATAR

 

Newly appointed US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad is heading out across the Middle East and South and Central Asia to begin a negotiations process with the Taliban, the State Department said in a press release.

“Khalilzad will lead an interagency delegation to Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia from October 4-14,” the release said on Wednesday. “Khalilzad’s mission is to coordinate and lead US efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.”

The special envoy, the release added, will coordinate closely with the Afghan government and other stakeholders in exploring ways to reach a negotiated settlement to the conflict.

The trip represents Khalilzad’s first visit in his new role as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s special envoy for Afghan reconciliation, according to the release.

 

Qureshi urges US to resume aid