WASHINGTON: The US military chief will accompany the top US diplomat when he visits Islamabad next week and the need to fight terrorists would be “the primary part” of their discussions with Pakistani leaders, says US Defence Secretary James Mattis.

At a Tuesday afternoon news briefing at the Pentagon, Mr Mattis also rebuffed suggestions that private military forces could join the fight in Afghanistan, and possibly replace regular US troops.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee General Joseph F. Dunford, who also attended the briefing, said the US had “permanent interests in South Asia” and wanted to “maintain a presence (there) to have influence in that region”.

Pompeo, Dunford set to hold meetings with Imran next week

“The secretary of state and the chairman are going to fly in to Islamabad to meet with the new government that’s in place there now,” he said.

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Gen Dunford are expected in Islamabad in the first week of September for talks with their counterparts.

They are also scheduled to meet Prime Minister Imran Khan.

In their talks with Pakistani officials, the delegation will “make very clear what we have to do, all of our nations, in meeting our common foe, the terrorists,” Secretary Mattis said. “And make that a primary part of the discussion.”

Gen Dunford said that the US would maintain both diplomatic and security presence in South Asia and the form of that presence was going to change over time.

Gen Dunford’s inclusion in the delegation dispels the impression that this was not a proper visit but just a stopover, as US state and defence secretaries were both going to be in New Delhi next week for the first two-plus-two talks between the United States and India.

But Secretary Mattis’ emphasis on the need to fight terrorists reignites the controversy stirred last week after Secretary Pompeo’s call to the prime minister.

The US Department of State issued a statement after the call, saying that “Secretary Pompeo raised the importance of Pakistan taking decisive action against all terrorists operating in Pakistan”. Islamabad rejected the US statement as incorrect, saying that this issue was not discussed.

At the Pentagon briefing, Secretary Mattis avoided whipping up the controversy and did not comment when a journalist asked if he trusted the new Pakistani leadership’s commitment to fight terrorism.

Mr Mattis, however, said that Secretary Pompeo and he were going to New Delhi for talks aimed at further strengthening a growing partnership with India.

“We see the strengthening of India’s democracy, its military, its economy as a stabilising element in the world,” he said. “And we want to make certain that where we have common interests, we are working together.”

He said that a number of agreements would be finalised at this two-plus-two meeting in New Delhi.

Published in Dawn, August 30th, 2018