WASHINGTON: US Defence Secretary James Mattis said on Saturday that the Trump administration wanted to broaden the common ground between Pakistan and the United States to ensure that no terrorist group has a safe haven inside that country.

Secretary Mattis embarked on a four-nation tour on Friday which will take him to Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and Kuwait. During the five-day tour, he will re-affirm America’s “enduring commitment to partnerships” in the Middle East, West Africa and South Asia, the Pentagon said.

The Pentagon also announced that Mr Mattis will meet Prime Minister Shahid Khaqani Abbasi and Chief of the Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa on Dec 4 before moving on to Kuwait, the last destination of his five-day tour.

“What we’re looking for is to broaden the common ground and make certain that no terrorist organisation is seen as able to operate from a haven there,” said the top US defence official when asked how Washington would persuade Islamabad to support President Donald Trump’s new Afghan policy.

Defence secretary says his country committed to a pragmatic relationship with Pakistan

The new strategy, announced on Aug 21, seeks to defeat the Taliban in the battlefield to force it to work with the US-backed government in Kabul.

Talking to journalists travelling with him to Egypt, Secretary Mattis briefly explained how he plans to engage Pakistani civil and military leaders when he arrives in Islamabad on Dec 4.

“The US remains committed to a pragmatic relationship” with Pakistan that “expands cooperation on shared interests while reinforcing President Trump’s call for action against terrorist safe havens,” he said.

“The bottom line is that Pakistan has to act in its own best interest. They know this.”

Mr Mattis said that “in many cases” Pakistanis were already backing this strategy by taking on the terrorists operating inside their country but the US now wants to make sure that no terrorist group has a safe haven in Pakistan.

“They have had many of their innocent people killed. They’ve had many of their soldiers killed and wounded,” he said, while explaining why he thinks Pakistan should cooperate with the United States.

In his opening statement to the media, Mr Mattis said this would be his first visit as secretary of defence, but not his first to Pakistan.

He said that since Aug 21, he has already visited New Delhi, Kabul and Brussels to discuss the new strategy with Indian and Afghan leaders and was now going to Islamabad for talks with Pakistani leaders.

“So, it’s a continued dialogue, in what our vision is for the Afghan peace process which, is based on four R’s, and the objective ‘R’ is “reconciliation” and what role they’re going to play in that,” he said.

In his statement to the US Senate Armed Services Committee last month, Secretary Mattis describes the Trump strategy for Afghanistan as “R4+S,” which stands for “regionalise, realign, reinforce, reconcile and sustain”.

And his latest statement makes it clear that Washington wants Pakistan to play a key role in promoting reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban.

The two countries, however, define this reconciliation differently.

The United States wants to defeat the Taliban in the battlefield to force it to join the reconciliation process. To achieve this objective, it wants to pressure the Taliban from both sides of the Pak-Afghan border, with Pakistani forces attacking them from their side and US and Afghan forces from the Afghan side.

Pakistan, however, suggests engaging those Taliban forces who are willing to talk and attacking only those who refuse to talk.

Asked about a recent statement by Gen John Nicholson, the commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, that despite promises Pakistan has not changed its policies and continues to retain relations with some Taliban groups, Mr Mattis said: “We have heard from Pakistan leaders that they do not support terrorism. So I expect to see that sort of action reflected in their policies.”

Pakistan also “has taken significant casualties — both innocent people and their army — significant casualties from them. So we expect them to act in their own best interest, and in support of peace and regional stability,” he added.

Published in Dawn, December 3rd, 2017

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