ISLAMABAD, Oct 24, (Agencies): US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson landed in Islamabad Tuesday as Washington turns up the heat on Pakistan for allegedly providing “safe havens” for Taleban militants. Tillerson’s visit, his first to Pakistan since becoming secretary of state, comes months after US President Donald Trump angrily accused the nucleararmed country of harbouring “agents of chaos” who can attack NATO-led forces in neighbouring Afghanistan.
It follows on the heels of an unannounced stop in Afghanistan, where the US top diplomat reiterated America’s commitment to the country and warned Washington has made “very specific requests” of Pakistan seeking to “undermine the support that the Taleban receives”. Washington and Kabul have long accused Islamabad of supporting militant groups including the Taleban, believed to have links to Pakistan’s shadowy military establishment who aim to use them as a regional bulwark against arch-nemesis India.
Pakistan has repeatedly denied the charge, insisting it maintains contacts only with the militants as it seeks to bring them to the table for peace talks. During his brief trip to Bagram air base Monday, Tillerson told reporters Pakistan needs to “take a clear-eyed view of the situation that they are confronted with in terms of the number of terrorist organisations that find safe haven inside” the country. His visit to Islamabad, where he is meeting with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and the powerful military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, marks the first by a member of the administration.
US and Pakistani sources say he will be followed later in the year by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis as Trump seeks to send a tough message to the wayward ally. The US-Pakistan relationship has waxed and waned dramatically since Trump took office in January. Pakistan said the President had praised its then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif as “terrific” in an effusive phone call when Trump took office in January.
But Trump’s blistering speech in August accusing Pakistan of harbouring militants saw Islamabad angrily hit back at the claims, insisting they discount the thousands of lives lost and billions spent in fighting extremism. Following the speech, Tillerson cautioned Pakistan that it could lose its status as a privileged military ally if it continued providing support to Afghan militant groups. As one of 16 “Non-NATO Major Allies”, Pakistan benefits from billions of dollars in aid and has access to advanced US military technology banned from other countries.
Earlier this month Pakistani forces acting on American intelligence rescued a US-Canadian family that had been in Taleban captivity for five years, sparking hopes that ties were on the mend. The rescue was followed by a series of drone strikes on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border targeting long-time foes to both Washington and Islamabad. The US has vowed to send more than 3,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, on top of the 11,000 already deployed there, to train and advise Afghan security forces as part of a new strategy outlined by the administration. Meanwhile, Tillerson said Monday there is a place for moderate elements of the Taleban in Afghanistan’s government as long as they renounce violence and terrorism and commit to stability. He also delivered a blunt warning to neighboring Pakistan, insisting Islamabad must step up action against terrorist groups that have found safe haven within its borders.
Speaking on an unannounced trip to Afghanistan where he met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and other senior officials at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul, Tillerson said the Taleban must understand that they will never win a military victory and should prepare to negotiate with the government. “Clearly, we have to continue to fight against the Taleban, against others, in order for them to understand they will never win a military victory,” Tillerson told a small group of reporters allowed to accompany him from the Qatari capital of Doha. “And there are, we believe, moderate voices among the Taleban, voices that do not want to continue to fight forever. They don’t want their children to fight forever. So we are looking to engage with those voices and have them engage in a reconciliation process leading to a peace process and their full involvement and participation in the government.” “There’s a place for them in the government if they are ready to come, renouncing terrorism, renouncing violence and being committed to a stable prosperous Afghanistan,” Tillerson said. Tillerson outlined to Ghani and Abdullah the Trump administration’s new South Asia policy, which the president rolled out last month and views the region through a lens that includes Afghanistan as well as Pakistan and India, both of which he will visit later this week. The approach is heavy on combatting and beating extremist groups in all three countries. “We also want to work with regional partners to ensure that there are no threats in the region,” he said. “This is very much a regional effort as you saw. It was rolled out in the strategy itself, demanding that others deny safe haven to terrorists anywhere in the region. We are working closely with Pakistan as well.”
Tillerson will visit Islamabad on Tuesday and said he would be telling Pakistani officials that their cooperation in fighting extremists and driving them from hideouts on their territory is imperative to a good relationship with the US. “It will be based upon whether they take action that we feel is necessary to move the process forward for both creating opportunity for reconciliation and peace in Afghanistan but also ensuring a stable future Pakistan,” he said. “Pakistan needs to, I think, take a cleareyed view of the situation that they are confronted with in terms of the number of terrorist organizations that find safe haven inside of Pakistan. So we want to work closely Pakistan to create a more stable and secure Pakistan as well.” The administration’s strategy for South Asia envisions it as part of what Tillerson referred to in a speech last week as Indian-Pacific Ocean platform, anchored by four democracies: India, Australia, Japan and the United States.