WASHINGTON – Pakistan said Thursday its influence over the Taliban has diminished since a U.S. drone strike killed the militant group's leader last year, derailing talks aimed at bringing peace to Afghanistan.
Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif said Pakistan wants peace in the neighboring country, and still has some influence over the militant group, "but it's not as much as it used to be."
Pakistan's top diplomat was making his first visit to Washington since President Donald Trump laid out his strategy for ending the 16-year war in Afghanistan. The U.S. has long accused Islamabad of harboring Afghan Taliban, and Trump has demanded that Pakistan eliminate militant sanctuaries.
Asif has met with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who described Pakistan as a partner of the U.S. and critical to the long-term stability of the region.
Asif said Pakistan was willing to cooperate fully with the Trump administration, but he had some pointed words for Washington. He insisted Pakistan has wiped out militant hideouts on its soil with little help from the U.S., which has restricted military assistance to Pakistan, and it can't be blamed for the violence in Afghanistan.
"Don't just blame Pakistan," Asif told journalists. "We are not saying that we are saints. Perhaps in the past we made some mistakes. But since the last three, four years we are whole-heartedly, single-mindedly ... targeting these terrorists."
U.S.-Pakistan relations have been roiled for years by allegations that Pakistan tolerates the presence of the Afghan Taliban and the allied Haqqani network, which are leading the insurgency against Afghan and U.S. forces.
Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a congressional hearing this week that it's clear to him that Pakistan's intelligence service has connections to the militant groups. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told the same hearing that the U.S. would try "one more time" to work with Pakistan in Afghanistan before Trump "is prepared to take whatever steps are necessary." He did not elaborate on what those steps might be.
Asif objected to the possibility of renewed U.S. drone strikes on Pakistan. He challenged the United States to provide coordinates of the locations of terrorists, vowing: "We will bomb them."
He cited Pakistan's military operations clearing North Waziristan, long believed to be a haven for the Haqqani network.
Pakistan has traditionally regarded Afghanistan, on its western border, as being within its sphere of interest, and it has ties to the Taliban dating back to the extremist movement's genesis in the 1990s. In 2015, Pakistan hosted peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government that subsequently collapsed.
The U.S. drone strike that killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in May 2016 in Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province happened when the talks were already stalled. Asif contended that the U.S. strike was aimed at sabotaging peace talks.
He said Pakistan has "not only a trust deficit with the U.S. It's a trust deficit with the Taliban."
Mansour had been traveling with a Pakistani passport and identity card, infuriating the U.S. and Afghanistan, which said this was proof of the ease with which Taliban fighters were traveling throughout Pakistan.