Senior US and Pakistani officials meet after Taliban takeover of Afghanistan

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman holds talks with Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi

Senior US and Pakistani officials have held difficult talks in Islamabad amid a worsening relationship, as each country searches for a way forward in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Led on the US side by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and on the Pakistani side by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf, Friday's meetings came one day after Ms Sherman visited Pakistan's arch-rival India.

While at an event hosted by the Ananta Aspen Centre in Mumbai, she pointedly said: "We don't see ourselves building our broad relationship with Pakistan".

She added the US had "no interest" in returning to the days when Washington treated India and Pakistan equally.

The State Department only provided terse readouts of Ms Sherman's meetings with Mr Qureshi and Mr Yusuf.

“Deputy Secretary Sherman emphasised the importance of a co-ordinated approach to Afghanistan and other issues vital to regional stability," the readout of the meeting with Mr Qureshi said.

In a video posted by the US embassy in Islamabad, Ms Sherman said: “We discussed the importance of holding the Taliban accountable to the commitments they have made, because it is in all our interest to have a stable and inclusive Afghanistan that does not serve as a safe harbour for terrorists".

She noted that other issues including climate change and the pandemic were discussed, and credited Pakistan for hosting Afghan refugees for more than four decades.

Islamabad denies it supports the Afghan Taliban but western powers say Pakistan's intelligence services have maintained a close relationship with the militants since they were toppled in 2001, and thousands of Pakistani madrassa students have filled the Taliban's ranks over the years.

Islamabad's relationship with the Taliban has long drawn ire in Washington and forced a reassessment of Pakistani ties with the US.

Islamabad’s approach “is one that has involved hedging its bets constantly about the future of Afghanistan, it's one that's involved harbouring members of the Taliban,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last month.

He told Congress the US is reviewing its relationship with Pakistan.

”This is one of the things we're going to be looking at in the days, and weeks ahead – the role that Pakistan has played over the last 20 years, but also the role we would want to see it play in the coming years and what it will take for it to do that," Mr Blinken said.

Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan on August 15 and the withdrawal of the last US forces two weeks later, US diplomacy has been focused on extracting commitments from Taliban officials on upholding women rights, recognising international agreements that the former government had adhered to, and co-operating in the fight against terrorism.

According to Michael Kugleman, a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Centre and a South Asia expert, Washington wants Islamabad to press the Taliban to take a more moderate position on issues like inclusivity and women’s rights.

"It also likely wants Pakistan to assist with US counterterrorism objectives in Afghanistan. This could entail stepped-up intelligence-sharing cooperation and overflight rights for US aircrafts carrying out counterterrorism activities in Afghanistan," he told The National.

He saw the trip as something of a missed opportunity for both countries, with the US keen to focus mainly on narrowly defined issues around Afghanistan, while Pakistan wants to discuss about a wider set of issues.

"The US withdrawal from Afghanistan hasn’t changed this calculus. And that’s a shame, because US-Pakistan cooperation around issues like climate change and cyber security would entail conversations that are more pleasant and less tense than those around Afghanistan, where the two often differ," Mr Kugelman said.

Ms Sherman is the most senior US diplomat to visit Islamabad since President Joe Biden took office in January.

Washington-New Delhi relations have experienced a boost in recent years, including under Mr Biden, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting the White House for a sit-down last month.

Updated: October 8th 2021, 10:08 PM