Uncertainty over the bilateral relationship — and the spillover effect in Afghanistan — has intensified since early January, when the Trump administration suspended at least $900 million in security aid to Pakistan. The US said Islamabad was providing sanctuary to certain extremist and terrorist groups, including the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network.
Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal vehemently denied the charges and called for direct talks to address what he said was increasing mistrust between US and Pakistani officials.
During a wide-ranging discussion at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, he also spoke of China’s growing economic influence in Pakistan. He stressed that Islamabad’s wish is to have a relationship with Washington that could one day grow “beyond the prism of security.”
“Pakistan’s partnership is most critical for the success of the Trump administration’s strategy,” Iqbal said.
Ahsan Iqbal spoke with The Washington Times as Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan was telling lawmakers on Capitol Hill that the United States could resume security aid if Islamabad engages in “decisive and sustained actions to address our concerns, including targeting all terrorist groups operating within its territory, without distinction.”
Mr. Sullivan told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that US officials “acknowledge the enormous sacrifices the Pakistani people and security forces have made to combat terrorism,” but he suggested that the Trump administration is in no hurry to reopen the aid spigot.
Mr. Iqbal flatly dismissed the administration’s claims of Pakistani support for terrorist groups. He said Islamabad has responded with an aggressive four-year internal military campaign against extremists — including the Haqqani network — along the porous, remote border with Afghanistan.
“There is no good terrorist or bad terrorist,” he said. “We are going after everyone. We have no favorites.”
While expressing optimism that U.S.-Pakistani relations can be repaired, he pointedly noted that Islamabad could fill the gap in American security aid by purchasing weaponry from Russia and China.
“Obviously,” he said, “if security concerns are denied, every nation has a legitimate right to look for alternatives.”
He said his government’s response to the Trump administration’s criticisms has been “very measured because we still believe and think that the solution in Afghanistan is not possible without close collaboration between Pakistan and the United States.”
“We recognize that the USA is an important stakeholder in Afghanistan,” he said, “but Pakistan is the biggest stakeholder.”
He said the U.S. military’s troubles with subduing terrorist groups in Afghanistan shows the difficulty of the mission.
“This whole metaphor of ‘Do more’ will not take us anywhere,” he said. “We both need to take extra steps to build confidence. …Right now, there is an all-time low on mutual trust, on both sides.”
A key first step, the minister said, would be to re-establish an Obama-era “structured dialogue” between U.S. and Pakistani diplomats on multiple fronts beyond security, which he said had effectively stalled more than a year ago.
Ahsan Iqbal also expressed frustration with the one-dimensional nature of US-Pakistani relations over the past four decades.
He said Americans fail to “appreciate and realize that what we are suffering from today is not our doing — it is the legacy of the US-led war against the Soviet Union of the 1980s.”
He said that Pakistan has maintained a very steady balance between its relations with China and the United States,” he said. “For us, it is not either/or. We value our relationship with both countries.”