WASHINGTON: The US State Department confirmed on Tuesday that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will meet Foreign Minister Khawaja Mohammad Asif at his office on Wednesday morning.
Mr Asif is reaching Washington on Tuesday evening on a three-day visit to the US capital. This is part of a bilateral effort to halt further deterioration in relations between the two countries which have been close allies for most of the past 70 years. Mr Asif is also scheduled to meet US National Security Adviser Gen H.R. McMaster on Thursday.
The official US announcement was brief and did not say what would be the agenda for this important meeting, although a joint statement is expected after the talks.
Relations between the United States and Pakistan became strained on Aug 21 this year when US President Donald Trump announced his new strategy for South Asia.
President Trump used the speech also to blame Pakistan for sheltering terrorists in safe havens, threatened to stop economic and military assistance to the country and offered India a greater role in Afghanistan, ignoring Islamabad’s concern.
Days after the speech, Washington offered to send two delegations to Islamabad for talks on the new US strategy, but Islamabad asked for more time.
The first serious attempt to mend relations came two weeks ago, when Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi met US Vice President Mike Pence during the recent UN General Assembly in New York and discussed the issues that were causing the strain, such as cross-border attacks, terrorist safe havens and India’s role in Afghanistan.
Mr Pence also proposed sending a US delegation to Islamabad for further talks, but Pakistan requested a high-level meeting for diluting the negative impression created by President Trump’s speech.
Pakistan believes that “damage-control efforts” should be launched before the general elections, expected in mid-2018. If not addressed, the negative impact of the Trump speech could also become an election issue, further damaging already tense relations between the two countries.
Diplomatic observers in Washington say that while the Americans accepted the Pakistani argument, they also emphasised the need for stopping cross-border attacks into Afghanistan from Pakistan’s tribal zone. Pakistan, however, pointed out that TTP and other militant outfits had also established safe havens inside Afghanistan and were using those to launch attacks into Pakistan.
The Indian media reported last week that US Secretary of Defence James Mattis had also discussed this issue with Indian officials. The report indicated that India was supporting groups like TTP to counter Pakistan-based groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and was unwilling to break its ties with Pakistani militant outfits.
While the Americans are keen to help improve relations between India and Pakistan, Washington realises that it cannot persuade them to resolve the Kashmir dispute.