Developments in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan are likely to dominate the discussions between U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and senior Pakistani officials during the American’s high-profile visit to Islamabad this week.Sherman, who arrived in Islamabad late Thursday, is the most senior U.S. diplomat to visit the South Asian nation since President Joe Biden’s administration assumed office in Washington.
Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Asim Iftikhar said that “views will be exchanged on all issues of mutual interest, including the bilateral relationship, as well as the regional situation” in meetings with the American delegation.
“We look forward to reinforcing a balanced Pak-U.S. relationship that is anchored in mutually beneficial cooperation in all areas, including security, trade, investment, energy and regional connectivity,” Iftikhar said at a weekly news conference.
Pakistan’s traditionally tumultuous relationship with the United States, however, is under renewed pressure in the aftermath of the dramatic Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August.
The tensions are rooted in long-running allegations that Pakistan has had deep ties with, and covertly supported the Taliban, as the Islamist insurgents battled the U.S.-backed Afghan government for almost 20 years — charges denied by Islamabad.
Late last month, a group of 22 Republican senators introduced legislation to impose sanctions on the Taliban and on all foreign governments that support the hardline Islamic group.
The bill also seeks official input from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken about his assessment of the role Pakistan played in supporting the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul.
“It is an attempt to pass the buck,” Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told a recent news conference, while responding to the proposed legislation. “Scapegoating Pakistan would be overlooking ground realities. And they have to understand that a partnership with Pakistan is required in the future, as well, to achieve stability in Afghanistan and the region,” Qureshi said.
Islamabad insists it is being blamed for America’s failures in Afghanistan, even though it facilitated peace talks between the United States and the Taliban which culminated in the February 2020 agreement between the two adversaries. That paved the way for Washington to withdrawal all its troops from Afghanistan in late August.
Washington says it is closely monitoring whether the Taliban will uphold their promises of tolerance and govern Afghanistan through an inclusive political system — where all ethnicities are represented while also ensuring protection of women’s rights.
Islamabad has maintained it is not in a rush to recognize the new Taliban government, but it has been urging the U.S. and other countries to engage with the new rulers in Kabul rather than abandoning the turmoil-hit country.
Russia, China and Iran also have moved to directly engage with the Taliban and have called for the removal of sanctions, including the unfreezing of Afghan financial assets mostly deposited in the U.S. federal reserves. But all of these countries also have stopped short of granting diplomatic recognition to the Taliban unless they deliver on their commitments.
“The crisis in Afghanistan has had a damning effect on U.S.-Pakistan relations,” Raoof Hasan, special assistant to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, wrote in a recent article.
“An investment of over 70 years in building a relationship has ended up at the beginning again. I believe that the two countries need to engage in a multifaceted dialogue to reorient, even reinvent, this relationship,” Hasan said in the Lahore-based Pakistan Politico magazine.
The bilateral tensions come as Islamabad campaigns for resetting its relationship with Washington and others on what Islamabad calls “geo-economics,” or development and trade, to move away from the traditional security-based partnership.
Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said expectations are low for a significant outcome of Sherman’s visit to Pakistan.
“Pakistan wants the United States to formally recognize the Taliban and accept a geo-economic reset that broadens U.S.-Pakistan relations to issues beyond security. Neither is going to happen anytime soon,” Weinstein said.
Counterterrorism remains a key area, however, where the U.S. will need Pakistan’s cooperation to counter any future terror threat now that American troops are out of Afghanistan.
“If Washington’s diplomatic outreach to Pakistan revolves around counterterrorism to the exclusion of all other issues, then that’s not diplomacy but rather militarized diplomacy,” Weinstein said.
“Washington has grown accustomed to the political expediency of managing U.S.-Pakistan relations through the generals and intelligence agencies. This habit is likely to continue, but Sherman’s visit is still welcome outreach from a civilian diplomat,” he said.