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US defense secretary visits Pakistan to discuss reconciliation role in Afghan strategy

US Defense Secretary James Mattis. (Reuters)
ISLAMABAD: US Secretary of Defense James Mattis is due to arrive in Islamabad on Monday to discuss matters in progress for eradicating terrorism from Pakistani soil, and the country’s role in Afghanistan — an agenda he underlined on Saturday to the media.
“The US remains committed to a pragmatic relationship that expands … cooperation on shared interests while reinforcing President Trump’s call for action against terrorist safe havens,” the secretary said.
This is Mattis’ first trip to Pakistan as defense secretary, though he has visited the country several times before.
Mattis is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and will conclude his last leg in Kuwait of the five-day four-nation tour which began Friday in Egypt.
Mattis is the second highest-ranking US official to visit Pakistan after Trump unveiled the US’ Afghanistan and South Asia policy on August 21. In October, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Pakistan to deliberate over the new strategy, which is devised to defeat the Afghan Taliban and compel them toward reconciliation dialogue with Kabul.
In his previous visit to the region, Mattis opted to meet with the Afghan and Indian leadership to discuss details of the strategy while ignoring Pakistan.
“There has been some sort of tactical adjustment between both countries for short-term goals on Afghanistan, otherwise his visit to the region previously skipped Pakistan,” foreign relations expert Qamar Cheema told Arab News.
Relations between both countries soured when Trump accused Pakistan of harboring “agents of chaos” in August, questioning Pakistan’s resolve to uproot militancy, allegedly thriving in its backyard, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. However, a series of continuing military operations has cleansed much of its volatile tribal areas of terrorists and Pakistan has conveyed its commitment to ensuring peace in the region to the international community.
Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesman Muhammed Faisal at a press briefing last week said Mattis’ visit is a continuation of interaction on the policy in which differences persist. “This clearly indicates that dialogue between both the countries to bridge the gap in perceptions is ongoing. We are trying to find common grounds and move forward in our bilateral relationship with the US in a positive and cooperative manner.”
Mattis has acknowledged that Pakistan is actively supporting the US strategy but wants assurances that it will not provide sanctuary to any proscribed groups, especially ones it doesn’t find detrimental to its interests.
Addressing the media, he said: “The bottom line is that Pakistan has to act in its own best interest. They know this” and stressed that its non-NATO ally must cooperate with the US and honor sacrifices of its countrymen with a zero-tolerance approach toward terror elements. The US wants Pakistan to promote reconciliation with the Taliban, which it hopes will be a step closer to ending the 16-year ongoing war in Afghanistan.
Mattis said: “It’s a continued dialogue, in what our vision is for the Afghan peace process, which is based on four R’s” plus sustain which stand for regionalize, realign, reinforce, reconcile, an abridged description of Trump’s policy. US firmly believes Pakistan’s role is instrumental for the reconciliation process in Afghanistan.
Analysts observe that both countries have differences on rules of reconciliation engagement. The US wants the Taliban forces to be stopped and squeezed by Pakistan and US-led forces between the Pak-Afghan border region, leaving no option but for them to negotiate. Pakistan wants to separate the good from the bad and have open dialogue with those who wish to talk, and strike those who refuse.
Mattis’ visit to Pakistan signals a further improvement in relations, said Cheema. “Pakistan has given assurances which show relations may stay on track between both states.”
The US is important for Pakistan, even though its northern neighbor China’s massive investment under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor project has given the country a sense of stability and security as its economic crisis widens, he says.
“The US has a global footprint. Its support on the world forum is essential. Pakistan needs that and can’t afford the US being anti-Pakistan.” In terms of defense, no matter what China can offer, “the US military hardware is reliable in comparison.”