Friday September 29, 2023

‘Do more’ echoes as Mattis arrives

By Agencies
December 04, 2017

WASHINGTON: Mantra of ‘do more’ is echoing in Islamabad ahead of the first visit of US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who has been cautious publicly stating that he does not plan to “prod” Pakistan, but expects it adhere to its promises to combat terrorism, as he embarks on his first visit to Islamabad as the Pentagon chief.

Mattis will hold meetings Monday (today) with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Chief of the Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa. During the meetings, he will discuss regional security, peace, Afghan conflict and other bilateral issues.

Mattis on Friday began his crucial five-day tour of the Middle East and Pakistan. He will also visit Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait during his tour. "In Afghanistan, we have heard from Pakistan leaders that they do not support terrorism. So I expect to see that sort of action reflected in their policies," Mattis said during his visit to Egypt.

His final stop will be in Kuwait on Tuesday, where he will meet with Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah. On November 24, Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif had confirmed that Mattis would conduct a one-day visit to the country.

Speaking aboard a military plane, Mattis said he does not expect to butt heads during his Monday meetings with the PM and the army chief. “That’s not the way I deal with issues,” Mattis said. “I believe that we [can] work hard on finding common ground and then we work together.” Mattis will communicate Trump administration’s new policy about South Asia.

In October, Mattis warned the United States is willing to work “one more time” with Pakistan before taking “whatever steps are necessary” to address its alleged support for militants, the Voice of America reported. But on Sunday, Mattis said he is focused on trying to find “more common ground ... by listening to one another without being combative.”

The United States has for a decade accused Pakistan of sheltering or having ties to terrorists, such as the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban, which attack Nato coalition forces in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Islamabad rejects the accusation, saying Washington is scapegoating Pakistan for its own failures in Afghanistan, where the United States remains in a stalemate after 16 years of war. Before Mattis’s visit, other Trump administration officials are taking a harder public stance on Pakistan. Speaking at a defence forum on Saturday, CIA director Mike Pompeo said, “We are going to do everything we can to ensure that safe havens no longer exist,” if Pakistan does not heed the US message on militants.

Since 2004, the CIA has conducted drone strikes -- mostly against al-Qaida and Pakistani Taliban targets -- in northwest Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan. The United States is considering expanding those strikes, along with several other measures, according to media reports. Other options include downgrading Pakistan’s status as a major non-Nato ally or sanctioning individual Pakistani leaders suspected of having ties with the Taliban.

But any kind of punitive action wouldn’t take place for at least a few weeks at minimum, predicts Michael Kugelman, a South Asia analyst with the Woodrow Wilson Centre.

"I think [the administration] wants to give the Pakistanis a bit more time to see if they're responding to the various demands the United States made of them when it comes to cracking down on terrorists," said Kugelman.

One of the likelier US responses, according to Kugelman, is expanding not only the geographic scope of the drone war, but also widening the type of targets the United States goes after.

"I think we could start seeing the US trying to target more Haqqani Network and Afghan Taliban targets," especially in the sparsely populated Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, he said.

The Trump administration has also threatened cut off aid to Pakistan. Since 2002, the United States has given over $33 billion in assistance to Pakistan. But the aid has already been cut sharply in recent years.

If ties were to deteriorate, the United States also has much to lose. Pakistan controls US military supply routes to landlocked Afghanistan, and could close them down, as they did in 2011. The United States would also like Pakistan to scale back its nuclear modernisation, improve ties with India, and stay engaged in the broader fight against Islamic militants. But despite the risks, Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, warns Washington appears to be running out of patience.

"For many years we were trying to hold out hope that the Pakistanis would change their mind about Afghanistan and our role there," he said. "But those kinds of hopes aren't as prevalent anymore. And on balance, therefore, I think we are closer to using some of those tougher methods."

Mattis wouldn’t elaborate on any possible US action. But he says the situation is pressing. “There’s always an urgency to something when 39 nations plus Afghanistan have their troops in the midst of a long war where casualties are being taken,” he said.