US Secretary of State Pompeo 'hopeful' after meeting with Pakistan's Imran Khan

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he was "hopeful" Wednesday of resetting the troubled relationship with Pakistan, a key player in the Afghan conflict, after cordial meetings in Islamabad including with new premier Imran Khan.

The shift in tone comes days after Washington confirmed plans to cancel $300 million in military aid, and was echoed by Khan, who
voiced his optimism at a fresh start in the long-rocky ties between the wayward allies.

The former CIA director, making his first visit as top US diplomat to Pakistan, told pool reporters shortly before leaving Islamabad that the "broad spectrum" of topics discussed included efforts "to develop a peaceful resolution in Afghanistan".

"I'm hopeful that the foundation that we laid today will set the conditions for continued success," he said -- though he added there was a "long way to go" before Washington would resume military assistance.

US officials accuse Islamabad of ignoring or even collaborating with groups such as the Afghan Taliban and the 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 both for ideological reasons and 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. Islamabad has long denied the claims.

The cancelled military aid is part of a broader freeze announced by the Trump administration in January designed to pressure Pakistan -- particularly the military, widely seen as controlling foreign and defence policy -- into action.

But Pompeo said ahead of the trip that it was time to "turn the page" and suggested that the election of Khan, who has vowed to seek better relations with the US, could provide a fresh impetus.

Khan and his foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi were also positive, according to pool reports.

"A sportsman always is an optimist," the former cricketer, who captained Pakistan to World Cup victory in 1992, was quoted as saying when asked about finding a new way forward with Washington. "He steps on the field and he thinks he's going to win."

Qureshi, meanwhile, described his meeting with Pompeo as "excellent".

- 'Shared goal' -

Pompeo, who was later joined by General Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had also been scheduled to meet Pakistan's powerful army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

In comments made before the trip, Pompeo said that in his conversations with Khan they had agreed that peace in Afghanistan was a "shared goal".

In his earlier comments Pompeo also held out the possibility that military aid could be restored under the right circumstances.

The $300 million was part of the Coalition Support Fund, set aside to refund Pakistani spending on counter-terrorist operations and helps pay Islamabad for allowing US and other NATO supplies into Afghanistan.

"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," Pompeo said.

"If that arises again, I'm confident we'll present to the president the rationale for that."

The latest remarks represent a change 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 spent just a few hours in Pakistan before travelling on to New Delhi, where he will be joined by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to meet their Indian counterparts on a range of defence and trade issues.



AFP

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