Pakistan’s defense minister said his country is determined to retain a positive relationship with the U.S. despite President Donald Trump’s decision to suspend military aid to the nuclear-armed nation.
In an interview in his parliamentary office on Wednesday, Khurram Dastgir Khan played down the significance of Trump’s Jan. 1 halt to about $2 billion in funding, saying aid had been considerably reduced already and the U.S. hadn’t provided spare parts for its weapons systems for three years. Pakistan will increasingly seek weapons from China and Russia, along with Eastern European and South American countries, he said.
“Just to say because of one president we’re going to scuttle the relationship, that would be incorrect and unwise,” he said. “We have a long relationship and we want to keep it.”
Relations between Pakistan and the U.S. have deteriorated rapidly since Trump announced his South Asia strategy in August. In that speech he joined a long list of other American officials in accusing Pakistan of duplicity for taking aid while supporting groups that attack U.S. forces and allies in Afghanistan.
Tensions worsened further after Trump’s first tweet of 2018, in which he said Pakistan gave “nothing but lies and deceit.” The discord comes as Pakistan faces rising economic imbalances six months before an election, with foreign reserves dwindling and current account and trade deficits widening.
Trump’s words stoked speculation that Pakistan may close U.S. ground and air supply routes to landlocked Afghanistan in retaliation for the aid suspension. Khan said Pakistan has yet to take that action out of hope the relationship can be salvaged.
The fact that ground and air supplies “are still open is a very clear signal of intent that we want a positive relationship with the United States,” he said. “We haven’t acted hastily and unlike the tweet we haven’t acted impulsively — we are acting with due deliberation.”
Khan rejected Trump’s complaint that Pakistan isn’t doing enough to stop militants that conduct cross-border attacks. Islamabad is committed to fighting extremism and doesn’t grant safe haven to terror groups, he said, citing an announcement this week that 27 Taliban and Haqqani network militants were handed over to Afghanistan in November. Kabul denied the transfer.
“There are no safe havens of any terrorist organization in Pakistan,” Khan said. “But we should remember there was a time there were about five million Afghans in Pakistan and so they are scattered across the country.”
In the past three years, domestic security across Pakistan has vastly improved following anti-terror operations on insurgents targeting the country.
“This is a Pakistan that has largely prevailed over terrorism on its soil,” said Khan. “But apparently the Americans continue to persist in their old ways of thinking and they continue to externalize their failures in Afghanistan by blaming it on Pakistan.”
Despite being at loggerheads with its war-torn neighbor, Khan hinted that Islamabad is willing to help arrange peace talks with the Taliban when Pakistan officials meet with Afghan counterparts in the coming days. He cautioned, however, that Pakistan’s influence over the group has “substantively” waned.
Many of the Taliban’s leaders were trained and schooled in extremist seminaries in Pakistan, and have allegedly taken shelter in cities such as Quetta and Karachi over the years.
“We will facilitate to the maximum extent we can, but we cannot guarantee anything,” Khan said. “We want peace in democratic Afghanistan so we can begin to exploit the economic benefits of regional connectivity.”
It’s yet to be seen if such talks would join the countless failed attempts to bring the Taliban to the table. Kabul has repeatedly accused Pakistan of assisting the group and affiliated militants. Islamabad has denied these allegations, but opposes increased Indian influence in Afghanistan, which Trump is encouraging. Pakistan’s military, which effectively controls security and foreign policy, fears encirclement from its arch-rival on two fronts.
Khan suggested a recent spate of Taliban-claimed attacks in Kabul that left hundreds dead and wounded last month were “blowback” for Trump’s troop increase and aggressive policy reducing U.S. efforts at nation building, which Khan called “short-sighted.”
Since then no “serious dialogue is happening” between Pakistan and the U.S. and intelligence cooperation has drastically been reduced, Khan said. Lower level working relations have been blocked, while ministerial and higher level bilateral discussions aren’t productive, he said.