ISLAMABAD - U.S. President Donald Trump will press Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan for assistance in advancing the peace process in Afghanistan when the two leaders meet at the White House on Monday in their bid to reset strained relations between the two countries.
Pakistan has arranged Washington's direct peace negotiations with Taliban insurgents who are fighting local and U.S.-led international troops in neighboring Afghanistan.
"The purpose of the visit is to press for concrete cooperation from Pakistan to advance the Afghanistan peace process and to encourage Pakistan to deepen and sustain its recent effort to crackdown on militants and terrorists within its territory," said a senior U.S. administration official.
The months-long U.S.-Taliban dialogue has brought the two adversaries in the 18-year-old Afghan war close to concluding a peace agreement to pave the way for ending what has become the longest U.S. foreign military intervention.
The U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity on the eve of the Trump-Khan meeting, said Washington appreciates the "initial steps" Islamabad has taken to facilitate the peace process but "we are reaching a critical juncture" and more cooperation is required to move the process forward.
"The president will be most interested in encouraging Pakistan to... use its leverage with the Taliban to help bring about a ceasefire and genuine inter-Afghan negotiation that include the Afghan government....We're hoping that the discussions are productive."
The Taliban refuses to engage in peace talks with Afghan interlocutors until it concludes an agreement with Washington that would outline a timetable for withdrawal of all American troops. In exchange, the agreement will bind the Taliban to prevent foreign militants from using insurgent-controlled areas for international terrorism.
The Taliban insists that once the agreement is signed in the presence of international guarantors it will initiate inter-Afghan talks to discuss a ceasefire and issues related to political governance in the country.
Last year, President Trump suspended military training programs and canceled hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance to Pakistan. He accused the South Asian nation of offering "nothing but lies and deceit" while giving safe haven to terrorists staging deadly attacks on the Afghan side of the border.
Islamabad rejected the charges and in turn accused Washington of trying to make Pakistan a scapegoat for U.S. military failures in Afghanistan, plunging bilateral ties to historic lows. Officials in Islamabad say the progress in Afghan peace has led to the warming up of ties with Washington, prompting Trump to invite Khan for the Monday's meeting.
In the lead up to Khan's visit, authorities in Pakistan arrested a radical cleric, Hafiz Saeed, who is wanted by the U.S. for terrorism in India and carries a $10 million reward. Pakistani officials have also taken control of hundreds of Islamic schools, health facilities and offices run by banned organizations blamed for cross-border terrorism.
Saeed's arrest, however, has come under scrutiny because he has previously been detained only to be freed by courts for a lack of evidence linking him to terrorism.
"We're monitoring the situation and -- but we wouldn't want to praise Pakistan for this step too early, because, you know, we've seen this movie before. We've seen this happen in the past. And we're looking for sustained and concrete steps, not just window dressing," the U.S. official told reporters.
Khan, who arrived in Washington on Saturday, is also accompanied by the Pakistani military chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
The Pakistan army has long been accused of covertly maintaining ties with the Afghan Taliban and terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) founded by Saeed. India accuses LeT of planning and executing the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed more than 166 people, including foreigners.
Another irritant in Pakistan's troubled ties with the U.S. is the detention of Shakil Afridi, the jailed Pakistani doctor believed to have assisted the CIA hunt down Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the September 2001 attacks on America.
"Dr. Afridi is a hero in our country. He helped us capture the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks...this is something that is of the utmost importance to us...it is likely to come up," the U.S. official said when asked whether the administration would raise the issue in meeting with Khan's delegation.