U.S. to resume military training program for Pakistan: State Department

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Trump administration has approved a resumption of Pakistan’s participation in a coveted U.S. military training and educational program more than a year after it was suspended, the State Department said on Thursday.

The decision to resume Islamabad’s participation in the International Military Education and Training Program, or IMET - for more than a decade a pillar of U.S.-Pakistani military ties - underscores warming relations that have followed meetings this year between U.S. President Donald Trump and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Washington also has credited Islamabad with helping to facilitate negotiations on a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. The talks recently resumed between the United States and the Taliban, who U.S. officials say receive sanctuary and other aid from the Pakistan’s military-led intelligence agency. Pakistan denies the charge.

The State Department administers IMET. It was a small facet of U.S. security aid programs for Pakistan worth some $2 billion that remain suspended on orders that Trump abruptly issued in January 2018 to compel the nuclear-armed South Asian nation to crackdown on Islamist militants. Trump’s decision, announced in a tweet, blindsided U.S. officials.

After an attack earlier this year by a Pakistan-based extremist group that killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary troops, U.S. officials called on Islamabad to take “sustained and irreversible action” against militants operating from its territory.

A State Department spokeswoman said in an email that Trump’s 2018 decision to suspend security assistance authorized “narrow exceptions for programs that support vital U.S. national security interests.” The decision to restore Pakistani participation in IMET was “one such exception,” she said.

The program “provides an opportunity to increase bilateral cooperation between our countries on shared priorities,” she added. “We want to continue to build on this foundation through concrete actions that advance regional security and stability.”

A second U.S. official said on condition of anonymity that Pakistan was in the process of selecting officers to send to the United States.

The restart of the program, however, is subject to approval by Congress. Republican and Democratic aides for the Senate and House of Representatives committees with jurisdiction over the process did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

IMET affords spaces to foreign military officers at U.S. military education institutions, such as the U.S. Army War College and the U.S. Naval War College.

Pakistan’s suspension from the program in August 2018 prompted the cancellation of 66 slots set aside that year for Pakistani military officers in one of the first known impacts of Trump’s decision to halt security assistance.

The U.S. military traditionally has sought to shield such educational programs from political tensions, arguing that the ties built by bringing foreign military officers to the United States pay long-term dividends.

Additional reporting by Mike Stone; Editing by Mary Milliken and Richard Chang