As Pak-US tensions ease, Ahsan Iqbal to jet off to Washington next week

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Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal during an Interview.

ISLAMABAD: Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal will be travelling to the United States next week in a visit that indicates growing engagement between Islamabad and Washington following damning indictment of Pakistan by US President Donald Trump in his policy for Afghanistan and South Asia, sources confirmed to The Express Tribune.

Ahsan’s a weeklong trip would come on the heels of a three-day visit by Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif, who met his American counterpart Rex W Tillerson and National Security Adviser Lt Gen McMaster last week to convey Pakistan’s concerns over Trump’s Afghan strategy which envisages a greater role for India in the war-ravaged country.

In his August 21 policy speech, Trump pilloried Pakistan for allegedly sheltering ‘agents of chaos’ – a reference to the Taliban who have been fighting a bloody insurgency in Afghanistan that American forces have been unable to quell in 17 years. Islamabad scoffed at Trump’s accusation, saying it would not become a ‘scapegoat’ for the US failure in Afghanistan.

The verbal spate led to a strain in ties between the two countries and in an immediate reaction Pakistan put off a scheduled visit by the acting right hand Secretary of State for South and Asian Issues Alice Wells. The frosty relationship, however, thawed late last month when Premier Shahid Khaqan Abbasi met US Vice President Mike Pence on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York.

Abbasi is said to also have a ‘brief but positive comprehensive’ informal meeting with President Trump. Abbasi’s trip was followed by Foreign Minister Asif’s visit to the United States where he asked the Trump administration to stop treating Pakistan as a ‘whipping boy’.

After Asif’s visit, Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal is scheduled to visit Washington next week, according to sources. Voice of America Urdu reported that Iqbal would meet World Bank officials during the visit. Moreover, he would also deliver a speech at the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University.

He would also give a briefing on the multibillion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) at an event. On Saturday, Pakistan and the United States traded barbs when US Defence Secretary James Mattis claimed that CPEC passes through a disputed territory – a statement that invited a sharp rebuke from Islamabad.

Officially, Ahsan’s engagements have yet to be finalised, but sources say these meetings are scheduled.

However, sources told The Express Tribune that the interior minister’s visit would be purely personal.

“Ahsan Iqbal has been planning to visit the US since last month to see his newly born grandchild. His daughter-in-law, the wife of Ahmad Iqbal, has been pursuing a PhD degree in the USA,” one source said.

Most probably he would also be meeting the Pakistani expatriate community during his sojourn.

AFP news agency reported on the authority of unnamed sources on Saturday that Secretary Tillerson and Defence Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis would travel to Islamabad late this month to turn up the heat on Pakistan.

The one-two punch is designed to drill home Trump’s message that the alleged Pakistani state support for militant groups has to end, according to officials briefed on the visits, it added.

Analysts say the two sides need to engage to improve cooperation, especially for restoring peace in Afghanistan where the US-led military campaign has entered 18th year. Islamabad has repeatedly said that it is ready help in every possible way in the Afghan-led peace and reconciliation process.

According to the VOA Urdu, Pakistan is also playing a leading role in a quadrilateral session in Muscat, Oman, aimed at bringing the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table. The session will be held Oman’s capital on October 16.

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