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October 26, 2017

Tillerson’s visit


October 26, 2017

Both Rex Tillerson and his Pakistani hosts seem to have treated the US secretary of state’s first visit to the country with appropriately low expectations. Tillerson scheduled only four hours in Islamabad, sandwiched between his trips to Afghanistan and India while Pakistan sent only a Foreign Office official to greet him on his arrival to the country. Tillerson’s meeting with top civilian and military officials, including Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Chief of Army Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa, was similarly low-key. The traditional post-talks press conference was foregone, with the Foreign Office releasing only a 30-second clip of the meeting. The statement released by the US embassy also downplayed the talks, with the usual bromides of a fruitful partnership accompanied by a call on Pakistan to increase its efforts to eradicate militants operating within the country. The tone struck by this statement was more diplomatic than the one Tillerson had adopted just a day earlier, when he talked of militant safe havens and ties between the two countries being dependent on us taking action against them. But the cordial words cannot disguise that the message from the US is the same: it still believes Pakistan is sheltering the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban, and is perfectly prepared to downgrade its relationship with us because of this.

This problem has bedevilled ties between the two countries for years. Both sides do not trust each other. The US does not consider Pakistan an ally in its so-called war against terror while Pakistan feels its status in the eyes of the US is little more than that of a mercenary. The difference now is that we are not quite as dependent on US aid as before and so feel free to give louder voice to disagreements. The US, too, under the Trump administration has been blunter than ever before with friend and foe alike. Even incidents like the Pakistan Army rescue last week of hostages held by the Haqqani Network provide only the most temporary of boosts to a floundering partnership.

It hardly came as a surprise when Tillerson, upon reaching India, declared that he was worried militancy could threaten the stability of Pakistan’s government — a bit of scaremongering that has no basis in reality.        For now, Pakistan’s best bet is to keep on stressing the actions it is taking against militant groups — at great human and financial cost to state and society. This has been reiterated by Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif who, in an interview to the BBC after the meeting with Tillerson, said that Pakistan does not provide safe havens to any militant group and US accusations otherwise had created a trust deficit. We will have to wait for the  inevitable moment when the US realises that sending a few thousand more troops to Afghanistan will not be sufficient to defeat the Taliban. It is only when the Trump administration, like the Bush and Obama administrations before it, learns that there is no military solution to the war in Afghanistan that it will realise it needs Pakistan as a partner in negotiating peace in the country.


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