WASHINGTON - A senior Pakistani general acknowledged the existence of links between the country’s intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and militant groups operating in the country on Thursday.
Pakistan army spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor said on Thursday that maintaining links with militant groups is a normal activity for any intelligence agency, but stressed that the state does not support any terror group.
“There is a difference between links and support. Name an intelligence agency of any country that doesn’t have links with such groups,” Ghafoor said during a press conference at the Army Headquarters in Rawalpindi.
Ghafoor's comments come after U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford both criticized Pakistan for not doing enough against terror groups operating on its soil.
“We need to try one more time to make this strategy work with them, by, with and through the Pakistanis, and if our best efforts fail, the president (Donald Trump) is prepared to take whatever steps are necessary,” Mattis told members of the House Armed Services Committee during a hearing on Tuesday.
In a different hearing in the Senate, the top U.S. military officer charged that Pakistan’s spy agency, ISI, maintained ties with militant groups.
“It is clear to me that the ISI has connections with terrorist groups,” General Dunford told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
Relations between the U.S. and Pakistan have become strained in recent years, with Washington accusing Islamabad of tolerating militant safe havens in the country.
The ties have been further frayed following President Trump’s South Asia Strategy speech in August in which the U.S. leader put Pakistan on notice for not cracking down on terror groups’ safe havens.
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khwaja Asif met with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington on Wednesday to discuss bilateral relations between the two countries.
Following the meeting with Asif, Tillerson said: “We have concerns about the future of Pakistan’s government, too, in terms of them we want their government to be stable. We want it to be peaceful. And many of the same issues they’re struggling with inside of Pakistan are our issues. So we think there is opportunity for us to strengthen that relationship.”
Michael Kugelman, an expert on South Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center, believes the meeting between the top diplomats is seen as a positive sign, but Pakistan should remain wary as the Trump administration is indicating it will not hesitate to take “harsher” and “unprecedented measures” against Pakistan.
“We need to listen to what the president says and what the vice president (Mike Pence) says and the national security adviser (H.R. McMaster) and also the Pentagon. We need to pay lot of attention to what (Secretary of Defense) Jim Mattis said on Capitol Hill the other day,” Kugelman told VOA. “He was pretty strict and said we give Pakistan one more chance to work with us on terrorism and if that doesn’t work we will take harsh measures, unfortunately I think what Mattis said stands more than what Tillerson says.”
Trust is necessary
Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Pakistan-based security analyst, told VOA that trust-building between the two countries is necessary now more than any other time in the past.
“It’s better for both the U.S. and Pakistan to sit down together and find common grounds, this will increase the trust between both countries, which is really needed at the moment," Rizvi said.
But he added that both countries need to avoid public criticisms of one another.
“If America is serious to make terms better with Pakistan, then it has to leave behind its policy of public denunciation of Pakistan, as it badly affects the relations,” he said.
U.S. has long accused Pakistan of tolerating militant safe havens on its soil and only targeting groups that pose a threat to the country’s national security, overlooking other militant and terror groups that carry out attacks in Afghanistan and India.
Pakistan denies the accusations, claiming that it has gone after all militant groups active on its soil over the years at great costs in lives and money.