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WASHINGTON: US Defence Secretary James Mattis has confirmed that the Trump administration’s new strategy for Afghanistan will have a regional context, including a Pakistan angle.

At a news briefing, Secretary Mattis indicated that the new strategy could change the nature of US military engagement in Afghanistan.

Although media reports have suggested that the Trump administration is working on a strategy that may redefine its relations with both Pakistan and Afghanistan — this marks the first time that a cabinet-level US official has indicated that the review involves Pakistan as well.

Examine: Pakistan’s anxiety

Responding to a question about the new strategy having a Pakistan angle, he said: “You’re right to say that strategy is wrapping all that into a regional context.” He said that while media speculations about the Trump administration sending close to 5,000 additional troops to Afghanistan “may turn out to be right”, the new strategy “also involves, perhaps, changing somewhat what the troops on the ground are doing right now”.

Media reports claim that the review is in its final stages and the administration could release it late this month, after sharing it with the US Congress.

Secretary Mattis also said that Senator John McCain, who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, has a key role in formulating the new US policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Senator McCain is probably leading the effort to get us what we need in here, up on the Hill [Congress], as is appropriate for him in his role as the chairman of the Armed Services Committee,” he said.

During a visit to the Pak-Afghan region earlier this month, Senator McCain urged Pakistan to confront the Afghan Taliban or face the consequences.

“We have made it very clear that we expect they [Pakistan] will cooperate with us, particularly against the Haqqani network and against terrorist organisations,” he said at a July 4 news briefing in Kabul. “If they don’t change their behaviour, maybe we should change our behaviour towards Pakistan as a nation.”

Since then, Congress has adopted several measures binding US civil and military assistance to Pakistan to the severing of its alleged links to the Haqqani network. Some of these measures also require Pakistan to prevent militants from using its soil for launching attacks into neighbouring countries and to release Dr Shakil Afridi, who helped the CIA trace Osama bin Laden at a compound in Abbottabad.

Secretary Mattis said the new strategy would “align everything” to formulate a strong US response to militancy in Afghanistan.

President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Gen H.R. McMaster, leads the team that is making the new policy and its members are believed to have consulted both Pakistani and Afghan officials on the issue.

“The strategy and you know, what is the main effort…and what is a supporting effort. And in the supporting efforts is where you often find the most nuance and, as a result, where you have to sort things out in the interagency,” said Secretary Mattis while explaining what was causing the delay.

He also confirmed recent media reports that key Trump aides were exploring the possibility of replacing US troops in Afghanistan with private military contractors.

Published in Dawn, July 17th, 2017