US hints at offering FTA for Islamabad’s help in Afghan talks

WASHINGTON: US Senator Lindsey Graham, who visited Islamabad this week, is believed to have discussed with Pakistani leaders a proposal for a free trade agreement (FTA) in return for Islamabad’s assistance in ending the Afghan war, official told media.

At a news briefing in Islamabad, Senator Graham also urged US President Donald Trump to meet Prime Minister Imran Khan and use this “unique opportunity to change (America’s) relationship” with Pakistan from tactical to strategic.

Senator Graham first proposed offering an FTA to Pakistan, after a recent visit to Afghanistan. “If we can go to Pakistan and put a free trade agreement on the table to get the Pakistanis to push the Taliban to the peace table, and you can end the Afghan war,” he said.

Mr Graham, a Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is considered President Trump’s closest ally in Congress and the US media say that the president often uses him to float ideas that he wants debated publicly.

Before leaving for Islamabad last week, Senator Graham is believed to have said in close official circles that he would discuss his FTA proposal with Pakistani leaders and also explore the possibility of arranging the Pakistani prime minister’s visit to Washington.

Senator Graham indicated that this was not just his proposal as people in the White House also wanted to explore both possibilities. Earlier this month, President Trump too expressed the desire to meet Prime Minister Khan, saying: “I look forward to meeting the folks from the new leadership in Pakistan [and] we will be doing that in not-too-distant future”.

But diplomatic circles in Washin­gton say that the two proposals — Trump-Imran meeting and an FTA for Pakistan — can only be implemented if Washing­ton is satisfied with Islamabad’s efforts for finding a negotiated settlement to the Afghan war, which is now in its 18th year.

Recently, both US and Afghan officials have appreciated Pakistan’s help in arranging US-Pakistan peace talks in Qatar and the UAE.

“We’re heading in the right direction with more steps by Pakistan coming that will lead to concrete results,” tweeted US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad while commenting on his five-day visit to Islamabad that concluded.

Mohammad Umer Daudzai, an adviser to the Afghan president, said that Kabul too had noticed a “positive change” in Islamabad, which creates “an appropriate setting for holding peace talks”.

Mr Daudzai said that during a recent visit to Islamabad, he noticed that “Pakistan’s civilian government and security institutions are on the same page” on the need to push for peace in Afghanistan.

Media commentators in Washington noted that Senator Graham, who otherwise is a strong supporter of the US military presence in Afghanistan, said during his visit to Islamabad that Mr Khan “was right” all along about the need for “reconciling with the Taliban”.

The media attributed this change to President Trump’s desire to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan and Syria. Senator Graham initially sought to resist Mr Trump’s push for a withdrawal but has since reconciled with the fact that US troops cannot stay in Afghanistan forever.