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Pakistan PM: 'Nobody Wants Peace in Afghanistan More Than Pakistan'

FILE - Shahid Khaqan Abbasi at the Parliament house in Islamabad, Pakistan.
FILE - Shahid Khaqan Abbasi at the Parliament house in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said Monday at the start of talks with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that Pakistan is committed to the war against terror.

"Nobody wants peace in Afghanistan more than Pakistan," Abbasi said.

He added that the United States and Pakistan "share the same common objectives."

Monday's meeting in Islamabad also included Pakistan's interior minister, national security adviser and the Inter-Services Intelligence chief.

Mattis did not offer any public comment on Monday's talks.

Ahead of his visit to Islamabad he said he did not plan to "prod" Pakistan, but expected it to adhere to its promises to combat terrorism. He also expressed hope for a collaborative approach.

"I believe that we (can) work hard on finding common ground and then we work together," Mattis said.

FILE - Defense Secretary James Mattis attends a meeting with President Donald Trump.
FILE - Defense Secretary James Mattis attends a meeting with President Donald Trump.

In October, Mattis warned the United States is willing to work "one more time" with Pakistan before taking "whatever steps are necessary" to address its alleged support for militants.

But on Sunday, Mattis said he is focused on trying to find "more common ground ... by listening to one another without being combative."

The United States has for a decade accused Pakistan of sheltering or having ties to terrorists, such as the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban, which attack NATO coalition forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

Islamabad rejects the accusation, saying Washington is scapegoating Pakistan for its own failures in Afghanistan, where the United States remains in a stalemate after 16 years of war.

Tougher stance

Before Mattis’ visit, other Trump administration officials are taking a harder public stance on Pakistan.

Speaking at a defense forum Saturday, CIA director Mike Pompeo said, "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.

Other options include downgrading Pakistan’s status as a major non-NATO ally or sanctioning individual Pakistani leaders suspected having ties with the Taliban.

FILE - A MQ-9 Reaper drone taxis at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan.
FILE - A MQ-9 Reaper drone taxis at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan.

But any kind of punitive action wouldn't take place for at least a few weeks at minimum, predicts Michael Kugelman, a South Asia analyst with the Woodrow Wilson Center.

"I think (the administration) wants to give the Pakistanis a bit more time to see if they're responding to the various demands 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 Trump administration has also threatened cut off aid to Pakistan. Since 2002, the United States has given over $33 billion in assistance to Pakistan. But the aid has already been cut sharply in recent years.

Pakistani leverage?

If ties were to deteriorate, the United States also has much to lose. Pakistan controls U.S. military supply routes to landlocked Afghanistan, and could close them down, as they did in 2011. The United States 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 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."

Mattis, who is on a regional tour that also took him to Egypt, Jordan, and Kuwait, wouldn't elaborate on any possible U.S. action. But he says the situation is pressing.

"There’s always an urgency to something when 39 nations plus Afghanistan have their troops in the midst of a long war where casualties are being taken," he said.