US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Islamabad Wednesday to meet new Prime Minister Imran Khan, saying he was hoping to “reset the relationship” with Pakistan which has worsened in recent months.
The conciliatory remarks by Pompeo, whose flight touched down just before 1:00 pm (0800 GMT), come days after Washington confirmed plans to cancel $300 million in military aid.
But the former CIA director, making his first visit as top US diplomat to the wayward ally whose support is vital in the Afghan conflict, said it was time to “turn the page”.
“So first stop — Pakistan,” he said, speaking on a plane ahead of his trip to South Asia.
“New leader there, wanted to get out there at the beginning of his time in an effort to reset the relationship between the two countries,” he said.
“There are a lot of challenges between our two nations, for sure, but we’re hopeful that with the new leadership that we can find common ground and we can begin to work on some of our shared problems together,” added Pompeo, who will be joined by General Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
US officials accuse Islamabad of ignoring or even collaborating with groups such as the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network, which attack Afghanistan from safe havens along the border between the two countries.
The White House believes that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency and other military bodies have long helped fund and arm the Taliban for ideological reasons, and also to counter rising Indian influence in Afghanistan.
It believes that a Pakistani crackdown on the militants could be pivotal in deciding the outcome of the long-running war in Afghanistan.
Pompeo suggested that the election of Khan, who has vowed to seek better relations with the US, could provide a fresh impetus.
“Look, I think there is a new government this time, most of this took place long before the prime minister was in power and I hope we can turn the page and begin to make progress. But there are realistic expectations,” he said.
– Shared goal –
“I’m hopeful we can convince them to provide that assistance,” he continued, adding that in his conversations with Khan, they had agreed that peace in Afghanistan was a “shared goal”.
Pompeo also held out the possibility the military aid, part of a broader freeze announced in January could be restored under the right circumstances.
“We were providing these resources when it made sense for the United States because the partnership was in a place where the actions of our two countries made sense to do that,” he said. “If that arises again, I’m confident we’ll present to the president the rationale for that.”
Pompeo added he would also meet Pakistan’s powerful army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa as well as his own counterpart, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi.
The latest remarks represent a shift in tone toward the nuclear-armed Muslim country and its new prime minister, a former playboy cricketer who came to office in July amid concerns he would remain tolerant of terror groups.
At the time of the vote, the US noted what it called “flaws” in Pakistan’s pre-electoral process but said it was nonetheless ready to work with the new government.
Pompeo also confirmed that Zalmay Khalilzad, a high-profile former US ambassador to Kabul, Baghdad, and the United Nations, would be appointed to lead peace efforts in Afghanistan.
“Ambassador Khalilzad is going to join the State Department team to assist us in the reconciliation effort, so he will come on and be the State Department’s lead person for that purpose,” he said.
Pompeo headed for the US embassy after landing, in a motorcade of about 20 white Toyota Land Cruisers and a police escort.
He will travel on to India where he will be joined by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to meet their counterparts on a range of defense and trade issues.