WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has informed Congress that Pakistan is willing to target terrorists if provided information and Washington plans to give Islamabad the opportunity to prove it.
At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Monday night, American lawmakers also warned that if the United States insisted on having the option of first strike against a nuclear-armed nation, it could send a wrong signal to other nations with nuclear weapons. They particularly mentioned India and Pakistan, two nuclear nations with strained relations.
Although the hearing was on the US president’s authority to go to war, Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, asked Mr Tillerson to share with the committee what he heard from Pakistanis during his visit to Islamabad last week.
“Pakistanis have indicated — if we provide them information they will act. We’re going to have to test that, give them an opportunity to do so,” Secretary Tillerson replied. “So, we are going to enter into an effort to have greater sharing of certain intelligence information.”
Senator Barrasso also referred to US President Donald Trump’s Aug 21 speech who said that “a pillar” of his new strategy for Afghanistan was “to change the approach in how to deal with Pakistan”.
The senator reminded Mr Tillerson that while travelling in South Asia last week, he too talked about “setting certain expectations” for the government of Pakistan and also about putting in place “a mechanism of cooperation through information sharing and action” to deny terrorist outfits the ability to launch attacks.
“So, could you talk a little bit about what is the change in the approach to Pakistan and maybe some of the expectations that you’ve articulated for the Pakistani government … in terms of what this cooperation is going to look like?” he asked.
Secretary Tillerson said he could only share “some broad contours” of Islamabad visit in a public hearing and if the senators wanted more, he was willing to sit with them for a closed hearing.
“But the conversation with the Pakistani government is for them to recognise that they will be one of the greatest beneficiaries of a successful peace process in Afghanistan,” he said.
He noted that Pakistan had two very unstable borders, with Afghanistan and India, so the message he delivered in Islamabad was — “You have to begin to create greater stability inside your country and that means denying safe haven to any of these organisations that launch attacks from your territory”.
Secretary Tillerson said he hoped his visit will pave the way Pakistan reviews the Afghan situation. “Pakistan will find it in their interests to begin to disassociate these long-standing relationships that have developed over time with certain terrorist organisations,” he added.
He claimed that Pakistan did have long-standing relations with the Haqqani network and the Taliban, which might have served their purpose for stability in the past but they no longer served that purpose.
“And it’s up to Pakistan I think, to think about their longer-term stability and their future by changing that relationship with these organisations,” said the chief US diplomat.
The hearing also focused on the issue of presidential authority to launch a nuclear strike, with the committee’s chairman Senator Bob Corker noting that the Senate hasn’t conducted a hearing on this issue since the 1970s.
Some senators described President Trump as unpredictable and warned that he could order a pre-emptive nuclear assault against North Korea or another country with nuclear weapons.
US Defence Secretary James Mattis and Mr Tillerson, however, said that the president could only order a first strike if Washington felt an “imminent threat,” but refused to define what that threat might look like.
Senator Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, asked the two witnesses if Mr Trump could launch a “first strike” without consulting any members of Congress.
Secretary Mattis avoided a direct answer, but said he could imagine a scenario where it’s possible if another country were preparing to fire weapons of mass destruction at the United States.
Another lawmaker pointed out that the Bush administration invaded Iraq because it thought Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons but their assumption was proved wrong.
Mr Mattis said the process for launching nuclear weapons was very rigorous. “No US president has forsworn first strike and that has served us well for 70 years,” Mr Tillerson added.
A Kentucky Republican, Senator Rand Paul, brought India and Pakistan into the debate, saying keeping the first strike option sends a wrong signal.
“What signal does it send to enemies of other nuclear powers? Enemies of Russia, enemies of China, enemies of Pakistan, of India that we’re reserving the right if we don’t like what weapon you have and we think it might reach us, we may as well just take you out,” he said.
“And we look Pakistan and India is pointed at each other. You’ve got Israel pointed at Saudi Arabia, pointed at Iran. You have all of these enemies and if we’re going to assert the yes, we have the right and the will and will take pre-emptive war against a nuclear power,” he warned.
Published in Dawn, November 1st, 2017