THE US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis’ visit to Pakistan marked the end of ministerial level bilateral contacts triggered for damage control in the wake of President Donald Trump’s WestPoint hate speech on August 21, followed by America’s botched up South Asia policy, again scapegoating Pakistan, for what all had or could go wrong in Afghanistan. For a change, this time, Pakistan refused to be cowed down and conveyed back that it was no longer available for taking the blame for others’ follies faults and acts of commissions and omissions leading to current mess in Afghanistan.
Defence Secretary’s tone prior to his visit was conciliatory. He quipped to a media guy that ‘butting heads’ was not his style, “That’s not the way I deal with issues. I believe that we [can] work hard on finding common ground”. Asked if he saw any indication that Pakistan was “open to do more”, Mattis replied in the affirmative. When probed about a recent statement by General 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, Mattis said: “We have heard from Pakistani leaders that they do not support terrorism. So, I expect to see that sort of action reflected in their policies.” Ostensibly Defence Secretary treaded cautiously during his visit. Notwithstanding, the core message from Mattis echoed the larger concern of Trump administration about Pakistan’s counter terrorism role.
Outcome of Jim Mattis’ meetings with Pakistani leadership indicates that the two sides are moving ahead to find a common ground for cooperation. He was told that Pakistan was prepared to look into the possibility of miscreants exploiting its hospitality to Afghan refugees. And Mattis ‘agreed’ to look into Pakistan’s legitimate concerns, including India’s growing footprint in Afghanistan. Jim’s tone was not as harsh as of Director CIA, Mr. Pompeo, who chose to send a harsher message when asked at the Reagan National Defence Forum, on December 02, about ways and means to persuade Pakistan to adhere to the new Afghan strategy of the US: “You begin by seeking their assistance.” In the absence of the Pakistanis achieving that, we are going to do everything we can to make sure that safe haven no longer exists,” he said. A US embassy statement issued after Mattis’ meeting with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa indicated that the defence secretary reiterated that Pakistan must “redouble its efforts to confront militants and terrorists operating within the country”.
At the same time, Pakistan, strongly rejects the charges, and had recently asked the US not to ‘dictate terms’ on the war on terror as it violated the country’s sovereignty. American frustration for its failure in Afghanistan is understandable. However, what is beyond comprehension are its attempts to channel out all its anger on Pakistan. Reportedly, in his meetings James Mattis made it clear that his country had not ‘seen any practical change’ in Pakistan’s attitude even after exchange of several high-profile visits to raise the trust level. Pakistan has sought time from the United States to show better results against the terror remnants, assuring that Islamabad was not playing a ‘double-game’ with Washington. Pakistan has reservations about new US South Asia Strategy that is why the two countries are trying to find convergence on some issues.
Over the years, Pakistan’s relationship with the US has transformed into transactional pattern, and lately it has become so both ways. Projections have that this pattern is likely to continue. This style has its own advantages and disadvantages; there is less of decent behind the scene diplomacy and more of open and crude power play. Major advantage is that if a particular segment enters a bad patch, remaining sectors continue to operate in a normal manner.
Also, of late, beside direct arm-twisting, America is often found in league with other counties to apply multi-dimensional pressures. For example, a meeting between the foreign ministers of the US, Japan and India was held on September 18, 2017 on the sidelines of United Nations General Assembly’s ministerial session. During that meeting, North Korean nuclear programme was deliberated. Indian foreign minister subsequently issued a statement on the meeting containing usual propaganda against Pakistan by hinting that the North Korean proliferation may be linked with Pakistan. During Modi era, India has made it a routine to label Pakistan for anything going wrong anywhere in the World. And Americans often exploit this Indian psyche to their advantage.
However, at the same time, to Indian chagrin, the US Department of Defence (DoD) came forward boldly to persuade the House Armed Services Committee to drop a provision linking financial aid to Pakistan with Islamabad taking demonstrable action against Lashkar-e-Taiba. The provision was part of National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA), impacting the US military spending in 2018. The DoD convinced key Democratic and Republican aides to remove the conditionality introduced by the Senate.
From one perspective, American “trend line” on Pakistan remains hard as the amount of US aid is shrinking while the portion coming under strict conditions is increasing. Pakistan has lost about $750 million in Coalition Support Funds over the last two years because of its alleged failure to act against terrorist groups as secretary of defence did not certify that Pakistan was taking adequate steps to curb terrorism in a clear indication of the current thinking in Washington. Half of the $700 million in military and economic aid for Pakistan for 2018 is also tied to conditions related to counterterrorism measures against the Haqqani network. In keeping with these realities, Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif said on December 05 that Pakistan’s foreign policy has for long remained US-centric, he highlighted the possibility of a policy shift and said revisiting Islamabad’s policy was the need of the hour. “China lives next to us… Russia can also be our good friend.”
—The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.