Pakistan, U.S. try to soothe tensions over aid suspension

In the weeks since the Trump administration withheld nearly $1 billion in security aid for Pakistan, Washington and Islamabad officials have been working to patch things up and avert a dangerous deterioration in their often troubled relationship.

Several U.S. officials have held talks with senior Pakistani civilian and military leaders to find what one called “common ground” after President Trump rebuked Pakistan in a series of tweets and then said the U.S. would no longer provide aid to Islamabad.

Trump accused Pakistan of doing nothing to assist in the U.S.-led war effort in neighboring Afghanistan and of failing to crack down on militants that attack U.S. and Afghan forces across the border.

Some U.S. and Afghan officials worried that Pakistan would retaliate by ceasing to share intelligence or raising the costs for U.S.-led NATO forces to use Pakistani air and land corridors into Afghanistan.

Pakistani Defense Minister Khurram Dastgir Khan went so far as to tell reporters this week that Pakistan would cease “a wide field of intelligence cooperation and defense cooperation” with the U.S. He did not elaborate.

U.S. and Pakistani officials say neither has happened, and in conversations over the last week the two sides have tried to move past Trump’s incendiary rhetoric.

The Pakistani army said in a statement Friday that the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, said in a telephone conversation with Pakistan’s chief of army staff that the “ongoing turbulence” in the countries’ relationship was “a temporary phase.”

Votel also told Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa that the U.S. was “not contemplating any unilateral action inside Pakistan,” but seeking its cooperation to capture militants based on Pakistani soil who carry out attacks in Afghanistan, the Pakistani statement said.

Col. John Thomas, U.S. Central Command spokesman, said officials are in continuous communication with Pakistan’s military, including conversations between Votel and Bajwa.

“We value mutual understanding of interests and concerns that we need to consider that might lead to a positive path forward,” Thomas said.

Pakistan was initially fearful that Trump would launch a strike in Pakistan — similar to the secret 2011 raid that captured Osama bin Laden outside Islamabad — and put its forces on alert the day the aid suspension was announced.

U.S. officials have given no assurances that as much as $1 billion in aid would resume. But one Pakistani official who spoke on condition of anonymity said his government had breathed “a sigh of relief” as their U.S. counterparts played down Trump’s comments.

“Even the U.S. ambassador,” who was summoned for a meeting at Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry after Trump’s New Year’s Day tweets, “didn’t have an explanation for the tweet for the first couple of days,” the official said. He added that U.S. contacts “didn’t disown Trump’s tweets, but they also found it tough to explain how they would translate [into] policymaking.”

In Washington, a senior State Department official expressed hope that the two countries would come to terms and that Pakistan would meet U.S. requests for the handover of captured terrorism suspects.

“I am hopeful that Pakistan will do the right thing and turn over the terrorists and honor their commitment,” said Steven Goldstein, undersecretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs.

“We’ve only suspended the aid; we have not reallocated the money,” Goldstein said. “So now it is the job of Pakistan to take seriously their commitment to us and most importantly to the people of Pakistan who … should want to root out terrorists in their country as much as we want to root out terrorists in their country.”

Times staff writer Bengali reported from Mumbai, India, and special correspondent Sahi from Islamabad. Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.

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