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WASHINGTON: US defence secretary-designate James Mattis has warned that putting conditions on US security assistance to Pakistan has not always produced the desired results.

“Conditioning our security assistance has a mixed history in the case of Pakistan, but I will review all options if I am confirmed,” Mr Mattis said at his confirmation hearing. “In particular, we should be aware of any behaviour that supports Pakistan-based militant groups,” he added.

This was a veiled reference to the argument, often made in the US capital, that sanctioning Pakistan has had negative effects. In the 1990s the United States slapped sweeping sanctions on Pakistan to prevent it from testing nuclear weapons.

Those who oppose sanctioning Pakistan point out that it did not prevent the country from going nuclear, mainly in response to similar tests by India, and reduced US engagement with the country allowed terrorism to flourish.

Mr Mattis, who appeared before the Senate panels on Thursday and Friday to explain the policies he would follow as the defence secretary, said he would consult the Senate Armed Services Committee before making any decision on attaching conditions to US security assistance to Pakistan.

Mr Mattis said he would work to build bridges with Pakistan and to restore the trust that has eroded in recent years. But, at the same time, he would also urge Islamabad to “neutralise” militant groups that allegedly operate within its borders.

Diplomatic observers are interpreting these statements as a glimpse of the Trump administration’s military policy towards Pakistan, which indicate the continuation of the carrot-and-stick policy of the Obama administration.

The statements were read with mixed sentiments in New Delhi and Kabul where media outlets quoted official sources as saying that they had hoped the Trump administration would “force Islamabad to change its policies towards the two neighbours”.

Pakistan optimistic

This desire to rebuild the relationship caused Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington, Jalil Abbas Jilani, to say that he hoped the new US administration would reopen the proposed sale of F-16 aircraft to the country and would take a decision in favour of Islamabad.

Mr Jilani noted that US president-elect Donald Trump had selected people who would look sympathetically into the F-16 and other issues.

“These are the people who would not want the resurrection of terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda,” said Mr Jilani, endorsing Pakistan’s position that the F-16s were a useful tool in the fight against terrorism.

Last year, the US Congress refused to release the funds needed for selling the F-16s to Pakistan at a reduced price, which forced the Obama administration to cancel the offer.

But the ambassador said he believes US-Pakistan relations would improve under the Trump administration, which includes several retired generals who have served in the Pak-Afghan region.

Mr Jilani, who was speaking at a luncheon he hosted for the mainstream US media on Friday, completes his tenure next month and is being replaced by Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry.

Ambassador Jilani said he also hoped that the Trump administration would work to reduce tensions between India and Pakistan. He noted that US vice president-elect Mike Pence recently expressed the desire to help resolve the Kashmir dispute, which caused him to believe that the new administration wants to play an effective role in the South Asian region.

He also indicated that as defence secretary, he would be firm in denying sanctuary to the extremist forces undermining the stability and security of Afghanistan and would urge Pakistan to eliminate the safe havens that still allegedly existed in Fata.

When asked what were the areas of shared strategic interest between the United States and Pakistan, Mr Mattis said: “Areas of cooperation include our support for Pakistan’s counterterror and counterinsurgency efforts, Pakistan’s approval of US logistics movements into Afghanistan through its territory and airspace, and Pakistani support for counterpiracy activities in the Arabian Sea.”

Published in Dawn, January 15th, 2017