US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said yesterday that President Donald Trump should meet Prime Minister Imran Khan as soon as possible to reset long-difficult US relations with Pakistan and push for a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan.
The comments, which add to growing signs of improved relations between Islamabad and Washington, come amid efforts to press on with talks between the Taliban and the United States aimed at an agreement to end 17 years of war in Afghanistan.
“I’ve seen things change here and all in a positive direction,” Graham, a member of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, who has generally been a staunch supporter of Trump, told a news conference in Islamabad.
He said a meeting with Khan, who has declared strong support for a peace agreement in Afghanistan, would leave Trump “far more enthusiastic about the region than he is today”.
“With Prime Minister Khan we have a unique opportunity to change our relationship,” he said.
He called Khan an “agent of change”.
“I’m going to urge him (Trump) to meet with the prime minister as soon as practical,” Graham told reporters, saying he believed Khan and Trump would “hit if off” because they have “similar personalities”.
“Prime Minister Khan is the agent of change that I’ve been looking for,” he added.
A previously transactional relationship, based on rewards for services rendered, should be replaced by “strategic engagement”, including a free trade agreement, he said.
US relations with Pakistan have long been dogged by suspicions that elements in the Pakistani establishment were aiding the Taliban, a charge that Islamabad strongly denies.
Trump has repeatedly lashed out at Pakistan’s alleged duplicity, saying late last year that Islamabad does not do “a damn thing” for the US.
Khan has been equally critical of Trump, saying before 2018’s election in Pakistan that a potential meeting with the US president would be a “bitter pill” to swallow.
However, relations have appeared to improve in recent months amid efforts to push the Taliban towards a peace deal.
Graham said a meeting between Khan and Trump is vital to carve out a potential deal in Afghanistan.
“They actually need to meet and come up with a agenda that will push a resolution to the war in Afghanistan,” he added.
Trump, who has in the past argued for the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan, has made it clear he wants to see a peace accord reached rapidly although the Taliban have so far refused to talk directly with the Afghan government.
Graham’s trip to Pakistan coincided with a visit by Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, and top military commanders including General Joseph Votel, commander of US Central Command.
Khalilzad left Islamabad without announcing a new date for talks with Taliban representatives, who have refused further meetings until the US side agrees to discuss a timetable for withdrawing its forces.
The uncertainty has been increased by reports that Trump is prepared to order more than 5,000 US troops out of Afghanistan, a move that would represent a sharp change in course from Washington’s previous policy of stepping up military action against the Taliban.
With Afghan forces suffering thousands of casualties a year and struggling to hold back the Taliban insurgency, the reports have caused alarm in Kabul, prompting many close to the government to question the US commitment to Afghanistan.
Asked whether there had been confusion over the US message, Graham, who has called for a Senate hearing on Trump’s plans to withdraw US troops from Syria and Afghanistan, said “without a doubt”, but added that he did not believe Washington would stand by and allow a Taliban victory.
“The world’s not going to let the Taliban take Afghanistan over by force of arms. That would be unconscionable,” he told Reuters. “Any president who let that happen would go down in history very poorly.”
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