U.S. defense chief Jim Mattis met with Egypt's President Abdul Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo, ahead of a counter-extremism conference focused on West Africa on Sunday.
During the meeting, Secretary Mattis offered condolences for the recent terrorist attack on a mosque in Bir al-Abed, Egypt, and recognized Egypt as a strategic defense partner with the United States.
Mattis noted Egypt's importance to the stability of the Middle East as well as Egypt's ongoing fight against terrorism and efforts to protect Egypt's borders.
A report on the meeting said the two leaders discussed a range of Middle East security issues and talked about a mutual desire to cooperate on terrorism and regional challenges.
Earlier, on the flight to Cairo, Mattis told reporters that counterterrorism cooperation with Egypt is growing. He said the U.S. remains committed to strong ties with Cairo, despite freezing some military aid to Egypt over rights concerns earlier this year.
Cairo was the first stop on a four-nation tour that also includes Jordan, Kuwait, and Pakistan.
The trip comes as the U.S. military shifts its focus in the Middle East, after having driven out the Islamic State militant group from its self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
A major focus of the trip will be pressuring Pakistan to end its alleged ties to militant groups that have attacked U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
“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,” Mattis told reporters.
In October, Mattis said the United States would try “one more time” to work with Islamabad before taking “whatever steps are necessary” to address its alleged support for the militants.
Egypt and terrorism
Egypt last week suffered what officials called the deadliest terror attack in the country's modern history, when 25-30 militants carrying Islamic State flags killed over 300 worshippers at a mosque frequented by Sufi Muslim worshippers.
Mattis said he will deliver his condolences for the attack, which occurred in the restive Sinai Peninsula.
“We are working closely with Egypt on how they can best defeat this common threat,” Mattis said, adding that U.S.-Egypt counterterror cooperation has grown during his time as defense chief.
Egypt aid cuts
But earlier this year, the Trump administration denied Egypt $96 million in aid and delayed a further $195 million over human rights concerns.
Egyptian officials called the move a “misjudgment.”
The United States gives Egypt approximately $1.3 billion in military aid every year.
Trump has since said he would consider reinstating the full aid. Mattis did not say whether he would discuss reinstating the assistance during his visit to Cairo.
The Sinai attack could help justify that decision, said Timothy Kaldas, who specializes in U.S.-Egypt relations at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
But, he warned, Egypt's rights record has not progressed since the aid suspension was announced.
"Moreover, there are no indications from the government, nor legislation under consideration that suggests the rights situation will improve in the near future," he added.
President Sissi has vowed to use "all brute force" necessary to respond to the Sinai attackers, and to secure the restive Sinai within the next three months.
Since 2011 the militant group Sinai Province has been active in North Sinai, a remote desert region that borders the Gaza Strip. It has carried out several deadly attacks against police, soldiers, and Coptic Christians.
Securing the area has proven problematic for Sissi. Egypt's military launched a large-scale military campaign against militants in September 2015. But, as evidenced by last week's attack, its effectiveness has been questionable.
Rights groups have also accused Egypt’s military of carrying out extrajudicial killings and torture.
Perhaps the highest-profile portion of the trip will occur in Pakistan, where Mattis is expected to try to persuade Islamabad to destroy what the U.S. calls terrorist “safe havens.”
The U.S. has for a decade accused Pakistan of sheltering terrorists, including the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan denies sheltering the militants, and the issue has served as a major irritant to bilateral ties.
The dispute has a direct impact on Afghanistan, where U.S. generals acknowledge the NATO coalition remains in a stalemate with Taliban insurgents after 16 years of war.
Thousands more U.S. troops are headed to Afghanistan, along with an increase in U.S. airpower, as part of a new White House strategy announced in August.
U.S. officials have said Pakistan has not changed its behavior since President Donald Trump’s speech, in which he called out Pakistan for continuing to "harbor criminals and terrorists."
“They have had many of their innocent people killed, they've had many of their soldiers killed and wounded,” Mattis says. ”The bottom line is Pakistan has to act in its own best interest. They know this.”
In response, the Trump administration is considering measures that include expanding U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan or downgrading the country's status as a major non-NATO ally, according to media reports.
Other more severe options include declaring Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism or sanctioning individual Pakistani leaders suspected of having ties with the Taliban.
But the Trump administration is not likely to take any kind of punitive action for at least a few weeks, said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia analyst with the Woodrow Wilson Center.
"I think it (the administration) wants to give the Pakistanis a bit more time to see if they're responding to the various demands that the United States made of them when it comes to cracking down on terrorists," said Kugelman.
One of the likelier U.S. responses, according to Kugelman, is expanding not only the geographic scope of the drone war, but also widening the type of targets the United States goes after.
"I think we could start seeing the U.S. trying to target more Haqqani Network and Afghan Taliban targets," especially in the sparsely populated Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, he said.
The United States has much to lose if ties were to deteriorate. Pakistan controls U.S. military supply routes to landlocked Afghanistan, and could close them down, as they did in 2011. The U.S. would also like Pakistan to scale back its nuclear modernization, improve ties with India, and stay engaged in the broader fight against Islamic militants.
But despite the risks, Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, warns that Washington appears to be running out of patience.
"For many years we were trying to hold out hope that the Pakistanis would change their mind about Afghanistan and our role there," he said. "But those kinds of hopes aren't as prevalent anymore. And on balance, therefore, I think we are closer to using some of those tougher methods."