US, Pakistani officials in strained talks on Afghanistan

National News
Wendy Sherman, Shah Mahmood Qureshi

In this photo released by Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, visiting U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, left, and Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi walk towards meeting room at Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Friday, Oct. 8, 2021. Sherman was meeting senior Pakistani officials Friday amid a worsening relationship between the two countries as each tries to navigate a way forward in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs via AP)

ISLAMABAD (AP) — United States and Pakistani officials are meeting Friday amid a worsening relationship between the two countries as each nation searches for a way forward in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

Pakistan has been pressing for greater engagement with the all-male, all-Taliban Cabinet in Kabul even as it shies away from any unilateral formal recognition. The South Asian country has urged Washington to release billions of dollars to the Taliban so that Afghanistan’s new rulers can pay salaries of the many ministries and avoid an economic meltdown. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees warns such a crash could unleash a mass migration.

Washington, which spent the better part of two years negotiating peace with the Taliban, is still smarting from its chaotic end to 20 years in Afghanistan, and much about the aftermath remains unclear. The U.S. is quietly talking to some Taliban to evacuate American nationals and others. Meanwhile, Republican senators introduced legislation that would sanction Afghanistan’s new rulers. Images of desperate Afghan men, running alongside a departing American C-17 and falling from the wheel well, have come to represent the mayhem of the U.S. withdrawal.

The new legislation introduced late last month by 22 Republican senators also calls for sanctions on Pakistan for providing safe haven for Taliban. That’s raised hackles among Pakistani rulers, who have slammed Washington for blaming Pakistan for its loss in Afghanistan after seeking and receiving Islamabad’s help to talk peace with the Taliban.

Pakistan also was a conduit for tens of thousands of evacuees from Afghanistan, providing temporary shelter for both foreigners and Afghans fleeing Taliban rule. At one point, Pakistan reserved hundreds of rooms at hotels throughout the capital for an influx of foreigners fleeing Afghanistan.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is meeting with the country’s powerful army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, considered the leading architect of Pakistan’s Afghan strategy while Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry wages the diplomatic battle. Sherman also met Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and is to meet Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Meawhile Afghanistan featured at a national security meeting on Friday attended by Pakistan’s military chiefs and Khan. The meeting warned that instability in Afghanistan would have “severe implications for Pakistan.” He ordered the establishment of a “special cell” that would coordinate humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and manage its borders with its neighbor.

Sherman met the Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf late on Tuesday but neither side revealed information on the substance of the talks other than a vague reference to “developments in Afghanistan and ways to advance cooperation across the bilateral relationship. ”

Pakistan walks a fine line as it seeks to establish a relationship with the United States in a changing region, where both Russia and China have increasing influence and the Taliban now rule in Afghanistan.

A strident opponent of the U.S.-led so-called “war on terror,” Khan has assured Pakistanis that Washington would have no access to Pakistani territory to launch so-called “over-the-horizon” attacks on Afghanistan.

The Pentagon has warned that Afghanistan could be a threat in one to two years. The greatest threat would seem to be from the Islamic State group, which are also Taliban enemies. They have ramped up their attacks on the Taliban in recent weeks, even carrying out a bombing in the capital as Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid conducted a memorial service for his mother.

But Pakistan faces strong opposition among its 220 million people to any accommodation to Washington to attack Afghanistan.

A Gallup Pakistan Poll released late Thursday showed that 55% of Pakistanis favored an Islamic government akin to the one operated by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The survey conducted between Aug. 13 and Sept. 5 polled 2,170 men and women in cities and in rural areas. The error margin is between 2% and 3%.

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