Pakistan must redouble efforts to confront militants: US Defence Secretary James Mattis

The United States (US) Defence Secretary, retired Gen James Mattis, met Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa on Monday in his maiden visit to Pakistan to reiterate the US’s longstanding policy belief that Pakistan needs to do more to combat militant networks operating on its soil.

According to a brief statement issued by the US Embassy late Monday, “Secretary [Mattis] 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,” in his meetings with Pakistani officials.

“The Secretary reiterated that Pakistan must redouble its efforts to confront militants and terrorists operating within the country,” it added.

The US defence secretary had landed at an air force base in Rawalpindi after arriving in Islamabad for a day-long trip —his first visit since taking charge of the Pentagon. He had headed straight to the US Embassy after being received by officials from the defence ministry, the foreign ministry, and the US Embassy.

PM Abbasi later received Mattis in the afternoon at Prime Minister House for their official meeting. Pakistani Defence Minister Khurram Dastgir, Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif, Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal, National Security Adviser Nasser Khan Janjua and Director General (DG) ISI Lt Gen Naveed Mukhtar were among those who attended. US Ambassador David Hale was also present.

During the meeting, General Mattis informed the Pakistani leadership that the purpose of his visit was to find “common grounds” in order to create a positive, consistent and long-term relationship with Pakistan, read a statement issued by Prime Minister House.

“The US defence secretary said he was aware of the sacrifices rendered and the lives lost in Pakistan’s fight against terrorism and extremism,” the PM House statement read. Mattis was also reported to have appreciated the professional abilities of Pakistan’s armed forces.

Mattis underscored the importance of continuing and deepening cooperation for the “common objective of eliminating terrorism from the region”, read the PM House’s statement.

PM Abbasi was reported to have underlined the need for broad-based engagement to strengthen the partnership and enhance cooperation between the two countries.

Articulating Pakistan’s perspective, “the prime minister noted that no other country benefits more from peace and stability in Afghanistan than Pakistan”, the statement said.

He agreed with Mattis that both Pakistan and the US have common stakes in securing peace and security in Afghanistan for the long-term stability of the broader region.

“The premier also appreciated the US’s resolve not to allow the use of Afghan soil against Pakistan,” the PM House’s statement added.

Sharing highlights of recent counter-terrorism operations targeted at improving the domestic law and order situation, PM Abbasi noted that Pakistan, in its national interest, would continue to conduct intelligence-based operations all over the country to consolidate the gains achieved in the last four years, his office said.

The prime minister reiterated that there was no safe haven in Pakistan and the entire nation was committed to its resolve on “eradicating terrorism once and for all in all its forms and manifestations”.

Mattis met Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa later in the day at General Headquarters.

“Meeting was focused on regional security with particular emphasis on Afghanistan as well as other matters of mutual interest,” the army’s media wing said in a press release Monday night.

“The Chief of Army Staff [COAS] acknowledged the history of US engagements with Pakistan, especially the ongoing efforts for continuing the positivity for peace [sic] in the region,” Inter-Services Public Relations said.

“He [Gen Bajwa] said that Pakistan has done much more than its due share despite capacity constraints but shall remain committed for peace as a responsible member of international community. He reiterated Pakistan’s support to peace and stability in the region and highlighted Pakistan’s concerns emanating from Indian use of Afghan soil, the necessity and right of Afghan refugees for a respectable and early repatriation and the existence of terrorist safe havens across the border in Afghanistan,” it read.

“Gen Mattis […] assured that US is ready to play its role in addressing Pakistan’s legitimate concerns, saying that his aim is not to make demands but find common grounds to work together,” the army claimed.

“The COAS appreciated the dignitary’s understanding of the underlying issues and said that Pakistan does not require anything from US but understanding. We have eliminated safe havens from Pakistan’s soil but are prepared to look into the possibility of miscreants exploiting Pakistan’s hospitality to the Afghan refugees to the detriment of our Afghan brothers,” it quoted the army chief as saying.

The search for common ground

On Saturday, Secretary Mattis had told reporters that he would look for “common grounds” between America and Pakistan during his time in Islamabad.

Asked if he was going to press the government to take more action against militants, Mattis said: “That’s not the way I deal with issues. I believe that we work hard on finding the common ground and then we work together.”

Mattis had also said that his discussion with leadership in Islamabad will focus on US President Donald Trump’s South Asia policy, which was announced in August.

The strategy seeks Pakistan’s support in defeating the Taliban on the battlefield, as Washington believes that only a defeat will force them to reconcile with the Afghan government.

Soon after the announcement, Pakistan had expressed its reservations to some of the policy decisions made in the strategy and totally rejected the mis-perception that it had not taken action against all terrorist groups.

“The US remains committed to a pragmatic relationship that expands cooperation on shared interests,” the US secretary had said on Saturday while reinforcing President Trump’s call for action against alleged safe havens.

Washington’s warning to Pakistan

Mattis arrived in Islamabad a day after CIA Director Mike Pompeo warned Pakistan that if it does not eliminate the alleged safe havens inside its territory, the United States will do “everything we can” to destroy them.

“The safe havens inside Pakistan have worked to the detriment of our capacity to do what we needed to do in Afghanistan,” Pompeo had said.

He had then explained how the Trump administration would deal with the situation if Pakistan turned down Washington’s request to destroy safe havens. “In the absence of the Pakistanis achieving that, we are going to do everything we can to make sure that safe havens no longer exist,” he had said.

Last week, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, Gen John Nicholson, had said that Islamabad had not carried out the “clear” demands made by Washington. “We have not seen those changes implemented yet,” he told reporters.

In October, Mattis has warned that the United States was willing to work “one more time” with Pakistan before taking “whatever steps are necessary” to address its alleged support for militants.

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