ISLAMABAD: As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson cut a sharp swath through the region this week doubling down on charges that Pakistan is sheltering militants, warmly embracing its archrival India and sympathising with officials in war-torn Afghanistan, some Pakistani officials have reacted with outrage and anger.
But Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi seems to be taking a longer, cooler view. While others were calling Tillerson’s tour a slap in the face, Abbasi said in an interview on Thursday that his four-hour visit for high-level talks here Tuesday helped the US official “appreciate our point of view”, a report in Washington Post said on Friday.
Relations between the longtime allies have reached a historic low point in recent months. With the Afghan war dragging on, the Trump administration has accused Pakistan of harbouring anti-Afghan militias and threatened serious reprisals if it continues. Pakistan has denied the charges while blaming Afghanistan and India as threats to its security.
Despite renewed US accusations of Pakistani support for militants, which Tillerson repeated in Kabul and New Delhi, Abbasi remained upbeat. “Our message is beginning to sink in,” he said. “We are at war with terrorism, and we want peace in Afghanistan.”
Other Pakistani observers were more critical in their appraisal. A national daily commented Thursday that the short, tense visit “can only be classified as a failure.” Pakistan’s “red lines with respect to India, Afghanistan and Kashmir,” it added, “were crossed without much ado.”
But Abbasi, an affable career politician who was appointed in July after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was ousted by the Supreme Court, shrugged off Tillerson’s charges. “If they don’t want to believe us, there is not much we can do about it, but it is the truth,” he said. “Pakistan is not a problem for Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a problem for us.”
In contrast to Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif, who declared Wednesday that Pakistan would never surrender to US demands on Afghanistan, Abbasi’s only harsh words were aimed at Washington’s outreach to India, Pakistan’s rival for half a century. In New Delhi on Wednesday, Tillerson praised India as “a natural ally” in fortifying Afghanistan and the region.
“India,” Abbasi said abruptly, “has nothing to contribute to the safety and stability of Afghanistan. We have a 70-year relationship with the United States, and we do not want it to be defined by either India or Afghanistan.” His blunt comment reflected the depth of Pakistan’s alarm over Washington’s growing ties with India, which it views as a powerful enemy, the newspaper said.
Abbasi’s outburst was the only jarring note in a low-key, at times jocular conversation, during which he quoted Mark Twain on how to keep from worrying too much and joked about his distaste for neckties. He said he acquired that aversion while he was a student at the University of California at Los Angeles in the 1970s and deviated from it only once, when accompanying Sharif to a formal meeting in China.
And despite his loyalty to Sharif, Abbasi , the son of an air force official and the son-in-law of a former national intelligence chief , has also become a key figure in creating a united civil-military front as Pakistan faces unprecedented criticism and demands from its military ally and benefactor in Washington.
“In our history there have been problems. Prime ministers have been overthrown and even hanged,” he said matter-of-factly. “But there has been an evolving process, and the political and military institutions have to trust each other. It has been a mistake for the United States to deal with us on different levels. Now we are at the same table” the prime minister said.