The US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, landed in Islamabad last week and had back to back meetings with the Pakistani leadership. His was the second high level visit to the country since President Donald Trump announced his administration’s policy on Afghanistan and South Asia.
In August this year, President Trump had accused Pakistan of providing safe havens to agents of chaos, violence, and terror; and that his administration would change its approach towards the region. Pakistan reacted strongly to his statement and proclaimed a review in its strategy.
Then, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson paid a visit to Islamabad in October. It was in Delhi of all places, on the last leg of his South Asia tour, that he said, “There are too many terrorist organisations that find a safe pace in Pakistan from which to conduct their operations and attacks against other countries.”
Tillerson warned that such groups could threaten Pakistan’s own stability. Detailing his meetings with the Pakistani army chief and political leadership, the secretary said he outlined “certain expectations” of “mechanism of cooperation” that Pakistan must fulfill or face US reprisal.
The media also reported the Pakistani prime minister had assured they were looking forward to moving ahead with the US. Apparently, Pakistan’s only other objection to the policy during the talks was to review India’s role in Afghanistan, besides rejecting allegations of harbouring terrorists.
Washington has a growing understanding that diplomatic efforts with Pakistan need to be coupled with defence ties, owing to the undeterred influence of the Pakistani military in its country. Historically, the relationship between the two militaries has been stronger than that between the civilian leadership.
After Tillerson’s quick stopover, General James Mattis’ trip was on the cards. The general has a history of criticising Pakistan, accusing it of supporting terrorists. Earlier this year, Pentagon spokesman Adam Stump told reporters that Mattis informed the congressional defence committees that he was not able to certify that Pakistan had taken sufficient action against the Haqqani network as per the requirement in the National Defense Authorization Act to permit full reimbursement of Coalition Support Fund. Resultantly, Pakistan lost the 350 million dollars funds. Pakistan needs the secretary’s certification for the same fund again for 2018.
Known as ‘Mad Dog’, Mattis knows the war zone way better than anyone in the Trump administration. He has served as a Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan and has led US Central Command in the Middle East. Given his extensive experience in the region, he was given a waiver to serve as Secretary of Defense right after his retirement, which otherwise requires a seven year waiting period.
While reiterating Trump’s policy on South Asia, he also warned Pakistan to get its act together. At a House Armed Services Committee hearing, a couple of months ago, he also talked about the “growing consensus against terrorism”, and Pakistan could find itself “diplomatically isolated” and “economically in increasing trouble as countries that are damaged by this terrorism coming out of there say enough is enough and take steps”. He said coming on line with the international community would be an “advantage to Pakistan”.
An ardent diplomat, Mattis offered that advantage. Before landing in Islamabad, he said, “My goal is to find common ground. I need to go, to sit down and listen to them…” He referred to the thousands of Pakistani troops and innocent people “murdered and wounded by terrorists”.
He also hinted that the US was not trying to impact India’s role in Afghanistan, and it wants both countries to work out their differences. “There’s people who are living below the poverty line in both countries,” he said, talking of the sense of urgency to move beyond violence.
Any scale of the success of his deliberations is yet to be seen. The Pakistani side did not give away any details of the meeting except repeating Mattis’ words. Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, talked with TNS about the “shared desire to defeat terrorism”, “enduring peace in Afghanistan” and the need to “build on the longstanding relationship with the US”. The words ‘common’ and ‘ground’ are repeated enthusiastically as if it’s a new phase.
Political experts agree that a ‘common ground’ is hard to find. In his recent article ‘US-Pak Relations: A broken record’, Michael Kugelman, South Asia senior associate at the Wilson Center writes, “For nearly two decades, Washington has implored Islamabad to shut down sanctuaries for militants — mainly the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network — that target Americans in Afghanistan. And each time, Washington has been rebuffed.” Kugelman blames a “misalignment of interests” for the “stubborn Pakistani inaction”.
Others like Vince Bzdek of The Gazette, however, say that Mattis called on Pakistan to play a leading role in bringing the Taliban to the table in Afghanistan, so that a peace there can be hammered out politically, rather than militarily.
After the secretary’s trip, the Pentagon chief spokesperson Dana White issued a statement saying, “Secretary Mattis recognised Pakistan’s sacrifices in the war against terrorism. The Secretary emphasised the vital role that Pakistan can play in working with the United States and others to facilitate a peace process in Afghanistan that brings stability and security to the region. The Secretary reiterated that Pakistan must redouble its efforts to confront militants and terrorists operating within the country.”
Clearly, these interests are quite in contrast with the common ground that Mattis is trying to find. Pakistan is still silent on its doubling or redoubling efforts. Perhaps this is why the top US diplomat, Rex Tillerson, said earlier this week that he doesn’t not enjoy dealing with Pakistan. Being further less diplomatic and more clear about the issue, he maintained, “We are willing to share information with them (Pakistan) and we want them to be successful. But we cannot continue with the status quo, where terrorist organisations are allowed to find safe havens inside of Pakistan.”
While Gen Mattis was being diplomatic and playing good cop in Pakistan, others like Gen John Nicholson, head of US forces in Afghanistan, as well as CIA director Mike Pompeo are of the view that the US is ready to do everything to ensure that safe havens no longer exist.
It’s a wait and watch scenario playing out at the moment.