ISLAMABAD: Declaring that Pakistan and the United States have entered a new “strategic partnership” for economic gains and peaceful settlement of the 18-year-old Afghan conflict, leading US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has said that he will request President Donald Trump to meet Prime Minister Imran Khan soon to cement the bilateral relations further.
The senior senator made the announcement while addressing a press conference at the US embassy shortly after meeting PM Khan on Sunday.
Mr Graham also claimed that the prime minister had endorsed the Trump administration’s plans that the US should keep its presence in Afghanistan and continue the reconciliation process.
“After meeting Prime Minister Imran Khan, I would urge President Donald Trump to meet Mr Khan as soon as practical. I would also urge him (the president) to meet the prime minister sooner or later and push a joint agenda for peaceful resolution of the Afghan conflict,” he added.
The senator said he had paid over 50 visits to Pakistan and Afghanistan with his colleague Senator John McCain, who recently passed away, but it was for the first time that he observed a drastic change in Pakistan. He said PM Khan and Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa were seriously trying to eradicate terrorism and resolve Afghan conflict. “Today Pakistan is a most reliable strategic partner than yesterday’s,” he added. He termed it a “big change” as besides military efforts the government of Pakistan was also trying to economically develop tribal areas to overcome militancy there.
Responding to a question about the actual purpose of his visit, Senator Graham said: “I did not come here to negotiate with Taliban but to see a new opening for reconciliation in Afghanistan which I’d never seen before.
“This time there is a lot. I can see a change in Pakistan in terms of peace in Afghanistan. Chief of the Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa has been doing a lot in Pakistan’s tribal areas and destroyed sanctuaries of Taliban. Pakistani armed forces should continue these efforts as these are better than any other time,” he added.
Senator Graham, who frequently visits American troops stationed overseas for on-the-ground assessment, said Prime Minister Imran Khan was new and different. “Earlier our (Pak-US) relations were transactional that if you give us this we will give you that and if you don’t give us this we will take away that from you,” he said.
He said PM Khan wanted to get rid of the transactional relationship and wanted Islamabad to have a strategic relationship with Washington. “Pakistan is a nuclear country and it should go forward instead of looking backwards,” he added.
“With Prime Minister Khan, we have a unique opportunity to change our relationship and I will also tell President Trump that Prime Minister Khan wanted to change in Pak-US relations,” the senator said.
He said both Pakistan and the US also wanted free trade agreement to help former in prevailing economic crisis. “It will be a game changer for Pakistan, whereas IMF loan will stabilise Pakistan on a short term basis,” he said.
Senator Graham also vowed to enhance trade with Pakistan saying 200 million young Pakistanis could become good customers of US products.
A war in Afghanistan would end through reconciliation, he said, adding that it was not only in the interest of the US but also of others. He elaborated that it was not in the interest of Pakistan or anyone else that Taliban reoccupied Afghanistan by force. “I would also ask President Trump that the vast majority of people of Afghanistan do not want to go back to those days when Taliban were ruling. Children want to go to school and they need us. The people of Afghanistan deserve better,” he added.
He said Taliban had realized that Pakistan and rest of the world would not allow them to take back Afghanistan. “This is the change and more robust Afghan armed forces than they were in 2004. Now time is not on your (Taliban) side,” he remarked.
Earlier, the leading Republican senator called on the prime minister. They discussed bilateral ties and reviewed the regional security situation.
An official press release said the senator conveyed his appreciation of Pakistan’s positive role in the ongoing efforts to find a political settlement in Afghanistan. He praised Mr Khan’s vision of advocating a political solution to the Afghan conflict.
Senator Graham also lauded his vision to improve the economy, eliminate corruption and create jobs for the people of Pakistan. “Prime minister’s efforts to normalise relations with neighbouring countries were noteworthy,” he observed.
Speaking on the occasion, the prime minister reiterated his government’s commitment to continue working with the US and regional stakeholders to find a political settlement in Afghanistan. He highlighted the need for normalising relations with all neighbouring countries to unleash the potential of regional cooperation.
Mr Khan said his economic team was constantly striving to evolve business-friendly policies for potential investors which could be benefited by the US companies. In view of the historical linkages between Pakistan and the US, the two sides agreed to deepen the bilateral economic ties particularly in the context of trade and investment cooperation.
Separately, the US senator met Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi at a luncheon at Foreign Office and COAS Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa at dinner at the army’s General Headquarters in Rawalpindi.
Welcoming Senator Graham, Mr Qureshi apprised him of government’s priorities on the external and internal fronts and said a proactive foreign policy was being pursued which, inter alia, sought to have a peaceful neighbourhood conducive for stability and prosperity of the entire region.
Senator Graham maintained that in line with the historical linkages between the two countries underpinned by close people-to-people contacts, Pakistan would remain an important country for the US. He promised to campaign for strengthening bilateral trade and economic cooperation with Pakistan, laying the foundation of strong, mutually beneficial and a sustainable relationship.