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Mattis' Softer Approach Is Latest Effort to Foster Change in Pakistan

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, left, meets with Pakistan's army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Dec. 4, 2017.
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, left, meets with Pakistan's army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Dec. 4, 2017.

President Donald Trump’s policy of pressuring Islamabad to rout terrorists seems to have had little effect, adding to the need for U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis’ to mend badly frayed ties, analysts say.

Mattis met Monday with Pakistan’s prime minister, defense minister and army chief of staff during his brief stop. The repeated theme was to find common ground to foster peace in neighboring Afghanistan to benefit the entire South Asian region.

But the response from Pakistan was little changed: it would benefit most from stability in Afghanistan, it doesn’t harbor terror organizations, and it has sacrificed heavily supporting the U.S. war on terrorism. That leaves the question of whether Pakistan is willing to risk a break in its relationship with Washington and an end to the flow of the billions of dollars in U.S. aid.

“I think the time-delaying tactics are still in play,” Dr. Ijaz Khattak, a professor at the University of Peshawar’s Department of International Relations, told VOA Deewa. “I believe this time these talks will be a bit unusual as some progress will come out, whether for good or bad. I don’t think things can move in ambiguity anymore.”

'Miscreants' blamed

Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan army’s chief of staff, claimed success in Pakistan’s fight against terror and said only “miscreants” are left.

“We have eliminated safe havens from Pakistan’s soil but are prepared to look into the possibility of miscreants exploiting Pakistan’s hospitality to the Afghan refugees to the detriment of our Afghan brothers,” an army statement quoted Bajwa as saying after meeting with Mattis.

Bharat Gopalaswamy, director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Program, said that while Afghanistan feels a sense of urgency in fighting the resurgent Taliban and Islamic State’s new presence, Pakistan may not feel as serious about the situation because it has its own priorities.

Focus on India

The country has been leaning increasingly toward conservatism and religious intolerance, and the powerful military’s focus has always been on rival India.

Trump’s approach provides India with a stronger role to play in the region, and New Delhi has eased the pressure that Pakistan has exerted on landlocked Afghanistan’s international trade by providing alternative delivery routes.

Gopalaswamy told the VOA Urdu show View 360 that Pakistan’s claims it is fighting extremism have been undercut by the release from house arrest of Islamist leader Hafiz Saeed, who has been accused of masterminding terrorist attacks in India.

Saeed said Sunday that his Jamaat-ud-Dawa group, which has been designated a terrorist group by the U.S., plans to run in next year’s elections.

“This is the right time to enter the country’s politics” and “highlight the Kashmir cause,” Saeed told reporters in Lahore.

Mattis’ softer approach in Islamabad contrasts with recent comments by other U.S. officials.

'Clear demands'

Last week, Gen. John Nicholson, head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said Islamabad had not carried out the “clear” demands made by Washington. CIA director Mike Pompeo added Saturday: “We are going to do everything we can to ensure that safe havens no longer exist,” if Pakistan does not heed the U.S. message on militants.

Since 2004, the CIA has conducted drone strikes — mostly against al-Qaida and Pakistani Taliban targets — in northwest Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan.

The United States is considering expanding those strikes, along with several other measures, according to media reports.

VOA Deewa and VOA Urdu contributed to this report.