President Donald Trump on Monday hailed Pakistan’s help in advancing peace talks in Afghanistan, in a marked shift in tone as the United States seeks an accord with the Taliban to end almost 18 years of war.
Trump was speaking from the Oval Office alongside Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is on his first official visit to Washington seeking to revive a fractured relationship.
Following an exchange with a reporter, Trump also said he had been asked to mediate the decades-long Kashmir conflict by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and would be happy to help, but his claim was swiftly denied by New Delhi.
Pakistan was the Taliban’s chief sponsor when it took power in neighboring Afghanistan during the 1990s.
Its influence over the group, which has waged an insurgency since it was ousted from power by US-led forces in 2001, is seen as key in facilitating a political settlement with the government of President Ashraf Ghani.
“We’ve made a lot of progress over the last couple of weeks, and Pakistan has helped us with that progress,” said Trump.
“A lot of things are happening for the United States, and I think a lot of great things are going to be happening for Pakistan under your leadership,” he added as he turned to face his counterpart, in an encounter filled with smiles and mutual praise.
The warm words signaled a clear reversal for the Republican president, who has in the past accused Pakistan of being duplicitous and last year cut $300 million in security aid.
Trump took personal credit for the apparent revival of Pakistani cooperation, telling reporters: “I don’t think Pakistan respected the United States, I don’t think Pakistan respected its presidents.”
‘Wiped off face of Earth’
Khan, for his part, said: “I am one of those who always believed there was no military solution,” adding: “I have to compliment President Trump, because he has now forced people to end the war.”
The United States is pressing for a political agreement with the Taliban before presidential voting in Afghanistan in late September. This would clear the way for most US troops to withdraw from Afghanistan and bring an end to America’s longest war.
But Trump warned: “If we wanted to fight a war in Afghanistan and win it, I could win that war in a week… Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the Earth.”
The US and Afghanistan have in the past accused Islamabad of supporting armed extremist groups such as the Haqqani network, which is an ally of the Taliban.
The claims are denied by Pakistan and Washington has also softened its rhetoric amid the ongoing peace process.
Days before Khan’s visit, Pakistani authorities detained Hafiz Saeed, the alleged mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, in a move hailed by Trump as a result of the pressure applied by his administration — though he has been arrested and let go in the past.
What Pakistan wants
Shamila Chaudhary, a senior fellow at the New America think tank and a former National Security Council official, told AFP that Khan’s visit amounted to “a reward for good behavior for following through on the Taliban talks.”
“It will boost Imran Khan’s standing, both at home and internationally, (and) also opens up political space for him not to be seen as a pariah of the United States.”
Islamabad want to shore up relations with Washington after years of discord following the discovery of 9/11 architect Osama Bin Laden on Pakistani soil, where he was killed in a US raid in 2011.
The IMF has just approved a $6 billion loan to help right Pakistan’s faltering economy, and keeping the US onside is crucial in maintaining the flow of Western assistance, added Raza Rumi, a Pakistan expert at Ithaca College.
The interaction between the two leaders — both celebrities-turned-politicians whose love lives once made regular tabloid fare — had been the subject of much speculation.
But according to Chaudhary, the Trump-Khan encounter was in some ways a “formality” because it will be the meetings between the US and Pakistan’s powerful army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who also traveled to Washington, where the “real substance… will be discussed.”
Khan is seen as much closer to the army, which controls the country’s foreign policy, than his recent predecessors, and the presence of Bajwa “gives a little more credibility to whatever message the Pakistanis are bringing,” said Shuja Nawaz, a South Asia expert at the Atlantic Council.
A readout of the meeting by the White House said Trump hoped to “revive all aspects of the bilateral relationship,” including new trade deals and “strong military-to-military ties.”
The latter move would be welcomed by Pakistan’s military, which is keen to access US military hardware and restart security aid, said the analysts.
India denies Trump claim
Meanwhile, India denied that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked US President Donald Trump to mediate the decades-long Kashmir conflict with Pakistan, emphasizing that third-party involvement is unnecessary.
Trump made the claim Monday while speaking from the Oval Office where he hosted Pakistan’s Khan.
The president said that during a meeting two weeks ago Modi had asked, “‘Would you like to be a mediator, or arbitrator?’” on Kashmir.
Raveesh Kumar, India’s foreign ministry spokesman, responded: “We have seen President Trump’s remarks to the press that he is ready to mediate, if requested by India and Pakistan, on the Kashmir issue.
“No such request has been made by prime minister to the US president.”
Kumar added: “It has been India’s consistent position that all outstanding issues with Pakistan are discussed only bilaterally. Any engagement with Pakistan would require an end to cross border terrorism.”
India and Pakistan divided Muslim-majority Kashmir after their independence in 1947, but both claim it in its entirety.
An insurgency on the Indian side over the past three decades has left more than 70,000 dead, mainly civilians.
“I honestly don’t think Trump has the slightest idea of what he’s talking about,” Shashi Tharoor, a senior politician from India’s main opposition Congress party, said on Twitter.
“He has either not been briefed or not understood what Modi was saying or what India’s position is on 3rd-party mediation.”
Trump said he “was surprised at how long” the Kashmir conflict has festered.
“If I can help, I would love to be a mediator,” said the president, who prides himself on being a dealmaker.
“Right now there’s just bombs all over the place. They say everywhere you go you have bombs and it’s a terrible situation… If I can do anything to help that, let me know.”
Khan gave a thumbs-up supportive of the idea.
“You will have the prayers of over a billion people if you can mediate and resolve this issue,” he said.
The Indian government accuses Pakistan of supporting the rebels, while Islamabad says it provides only moral and diplomatic backing to Kashmiris demanding self-determination.
India and Pakistan have fought two of their three full-scale wars over the Himalayan region and barely escaped another one in February when they launched cross-border air strikes at each other, sending tensions to the highest level since both obtained nuclear weapons.
Air force involvement followed a February 14 suicide bombing claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) group that killed 40 troops in Indian Kashmir.
Since then, both nations stepped back from the brink but violence still occurs regularly in Kashmir.
In early July Pakistan’s military accused India of killing five soldiers in a blast along the de facto border.
Among unrest the month before, India’s Central Reserve Police Force said militants attacked a patrol, killing three of the paramilitaries.
‘Pakistani intel led CIA to bin Laden’
In the course of his visit, Khan gave a television interview in which he said that Pakistan’s main spy agency provided the US with a lead that helped them find and kill Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Pakistan has until now officially denied having any knowledge of the terror chief until he was shot dead in a night time raid by US special forces on May 2, 2011, an incident that was a major national embarrassment and caused ties between the two countries to plummet.
Khan, who is visiting Washington on his first official trip, made his claim in an interview with Fox News when he was asked whether his country would release a jailed doctor whose fake immunization drive helped the US track and kill bin Laden in 2011.
“This is a very emotive issue, because Shakeel Afridi in Pakistan is considered a spy,” he told host Bret Baier, referring to the doctor.
“We in Pakistan always felt that we were an ally of the US and if we had been given the information about Osama bin Laden, we should have taken him out.”
Baier then asked if Khan understood the skepticism around the Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI) for leaking key information. Khan replied:
“And yet it was ISI that gave the information which led to the location of Osama bin Laden. If you ask CIA it was ISI which gave the initial location through the phone connection.”
It was not immediately clear what Khan was referring to and he did not provide more detail.
‘Governance implosion syndrome’
Though Pakistan officially denies knowing that bin Laden was living on its territory, Asad Durrani, a former spymaster, told Al Jazeera in 2015 that the ISI probably knew where he was hiding and hoped to use him as a bargaining chip before he was killed.
The 9/11 mastermind was tracked down after a 10-year manhunt to Abbottabad, a garrison town north of Islamabad where Pakistan’s military academy is headquartered, sparking allegations authorities were colluding with the terror group.
A leaked Pakistani government report in 2013 said bin Laden arrived in Pakistan in the spring or summer of 2002 — after the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan – and settled in Abbottabad in August 2005.
The report, which coined the term “governance implosion syndrome” to explain the extent of official failures to detect him, said he was once stopped for speeding and enjoyed wearing a cowboy hat.
Two former senior Pakistani military officials told AFP in 2015 that a defector from Pakistani intelligence assisted the US in its hunt for bin Laden, but denied the two countries had officially worked together.