WASHINGTON: US defence chief James Mattis says he intends to “work hard on finding the common ground” and “work together” with Pakistan — where he arrives today for his first visit since taking over the charge of the Pentagon.
The US secretary of defence’s trip aims “to re-affirm the enduring US commitment to partnerships” in the region, according to a press release by the US Department of Defense.
Mattis began his crucial five-day tour of the Middle East — including Egypt, Jordan, and Kuwait — and Islamabad on Friday. He is set to meet Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
Having underscored earlier that Washington wants to see progress in the Pakistan-US relations, the defence secretary will hold discussions on regional security, peace, bilateral issues, and the Afghan conflict — something of key importance especially after US President Donald Trump announced his new regional strategy in August.
Speaking to reporters travelling with him in the Middle East, the American defence chief 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.”
When asked if he was going to press the Pakistani leaders to take more action against the insurgents, Mattis stated that the country was taking action in its own best interests and “that’s not the way I deal with issues”.
“I believe that we work hard on finding the common ground and then we work together.”
“There’s plenty of collaborative areas, right now, still in effect. There’s been some areas that we have lost over the years, because of disagreements about what we need to do,” he said.
“We’ll discuss the South Asia strategy,” the secretary noted, saying that he had already visited India and Afghanistan and it was a continued dialogue that the US had for the process to ensure peace in Afghan.
“The US remains committed to a pragmatic relationship that expands cooperation on shared interests” while reinforcing Trump’s call for action against the alleged safe havens, Mattis said.
Terrorist safe havens
On Saturday, he had said indiscriminate action by Islamabad against the alleged terrorist safe havens inside the country are in the regional and Pakistan’s interest, US media reported.
Mattis also said Pakistan has taken significant casualties — both civilians and its army personnel — from the terrorists.
However, it is noteworthy that Mattis’ optimism comes despite the US’ continuing claims that Islamabad has not been making enough efforts to wipe out militants within its borders.
The American top brass has long been frustrated by what they see is Pakistan’s reluctance to act against groups such as the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, which launch attacks on neighbouring Afghanistan.
General John Nicholson — the US Army’s top general in Afghanistan — issued an unexpected statement last week, alleging there have been no changes in Islamabad’s alleged support for militant networks.
“We have been very direct and very clear with the Pakistanis… We have not seen those changes implemented yet,” Nicholson had told reporters, adding that he believed that senior Taliban leaders were based in the country, while the lower level leadership was in Afghanistan.
“We are hoping to see those changes, we are hoping to work together with the Pakistanis going forward to eliminate terrorists who are crossing” the border, he had said.
Pakistan, nevertheless, says it has done a great deal to help the US in tracking down terrorists.
Its military — in response to Trump’s accusation that Islamabad was harbouring “agents of chaos” and offering safe havens to militant groups waging an insurgency against a US-backed government in Kabul — had brushed off speculation that the American head of state could signal a stronger line against Islamabad.
“Let it come,” Major General Asif Ghafoor — the Pakistani military spokesman — had told reporters. “Even if it comes… Pakistan shall do whatever is best in the national interest.”
Commencing his trip to the Middle East and South Asia on Friday, Mattis reached Egypt a day later and was due to travel to Jordan on Sunday, before arriving in Pakistan today.
Mattis’ final stop will be in Kuwait Tuesday, where he will meet Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah.