Pakistan vows cooperation in fight against terrorist groups

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s prime minister pledged his country’s cooperation in fighting Islamist militants during talks here Tuesday with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has insisted that Pakistan do more to curb support for terrorist groups or face U.S. reprisals.

“The U.S. can rest assured that we are strategic partners in the war against terror and that today, Pakistan is fighting the largest war in the world against terror,” Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi told Tillerson just before their closed-door talks began. Pakistan’s army and intelligence chiefs also attended the meeting.

Moments earlier, Tillerson alluded to U.S. concerns that Pakistan is providing safe haven to terrorist groups — a charge Pakistan has repeatedly denied. At the same time, he described Pakistan as having an “important role” in the Trump administration’s strategy and referenced “our joint goals of providing peace and security to the region and providing opportunity for [a] greater economic relationship.”

On Monday, during a brief and unannounced visit to Afghanistan, Tillerson struck a much harsher tone, saying he intended to make clear in his talks Tuesday that Pakistan’s relationship with the United States would suffer — including possible aid cuts — if it did not take specific actions to curb support for militant groups, including the Haqqani network, a Taliban affiliate.

Tillerson’s arrival in Pakistan was low key and heavily secured; he landed at a military air base in Rawalpindi, near the capital, at midafternoon with little official protocol or fanfare, and his only visits were to the U.S. Embassy and the prime minister’s office in Islamabad. Traffic was blocked across the capital during the official convoy’s movements.

Pakistan’s Senate chairman, Raza Rabbani, said Tuesday that Tillerson’s threatening message the day before “seems like that of a viceroy’s before they visit a country.”

Abbasi, though, appeared eager to assure Tillerson that he had heard the message, telling him when they met Tuesday that Pakistan’s government is committed to the war against terrorism. “We have produced results,” he said. “And we are looking forward to moving ahead with the U.S. and building a tremendous relationship.”

Despite the largely cordial tone of their opening remarks, followed by several hours of private talks in the prime minister’s office before Tillerson flew to India for a longer stay, the enormous gap between American and Pakistani concerns and priorities has been evident in comments by numerous Pakistani officials and opinion-makers in the past week.

The Trump administration has focused strictly on the demand for more Pakistani cooperation in curbing terrorism and in ending the 16-year conflict in next-door Afghanistan. Many Afghans view Pakistan — which once backed the Taliban regime in Kabul — as a source of violent Islamist militancy and a permanent threat to their country’s stability.

Pakistanis, on the other hand, are far more worried about the threat from India, their larger rival and neighbor to the east, which is led by a Hindu nationalist government. The two countries have fought four limited wars. Both claim the Himalayan border region of Kashmir, and Pakistan has repeatedly accused Indian troops of abusing protesters in the Indian-controlled portion.

Pakistani officials said they intended to raise the issue of India forcefully Tuesday, especially President Trump’s overture to New Delhi to become more deeply involved in developing Afghanistan. That gesture has been viewed here as a direct U.S. rebuke to Pakistan and an invitation to India to jointly dominate the conflicted region.

“Our job will be to show Tillerson that he is mistaken in thinking that the U.S. can ever defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan by relying only on India,” the editors of the News International newspaper wrote Tuesday. “Pakistan is still needed to negotiate a political end to the war,” they wrote, adding that Washington is “looking for scapegoats” to blame for its failures in Afghanistan.

Pakistani Defense Minister Khurram Dastgir, who participated in the talks with Tillerson, told a TV news show Tuesday night that “we told him the threat of India is very real” and that Pakistan wants “mutual respect and cooperation,” not economic aid, from Washington.

Dastgir said a single meeting was held with Tillerson, including senior civilian and military officials, “to give a united message” to Washington. Pakistan’s military establishment cooperates with U.S. intelligence agencies on terrorism issues but has bristled at suggestions from civilian leaders that it allow U.S. troops to operate in Pakistan.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is due to visit Pakistan soon and is expected to reinforce Tillerson’s demands; he has told Congress several times that Pakistan is still sheltering the Haqqani network, despite its denials. There has been no specific description of likely sanctions on Pakistan if administration officials decide they are not satisfied.

Ever since Trump accused Pakistan in August of harboring “agents of chaos,” officials here have made numerous efforts to restore American goodwill. Earlier this month, Pakistan’s military unexpectedly announced that its troops had rescued an American woman, her Canadian husband and their three children after five years in Taliban captivity, based on a U.S. intelligence tip. Trump hailed the release as a “positive moment” in the strained relationship.

But observers in both countries doubt that such efforts will do much to resolve the larger tension between the former Cold War allies, which now fear different enemies and seek contradictory solutions to regional conflict. Any smaller signs of cooperation, wrote columnist Huma Yusuf in the Dawn newspaper this week, are only “the piecemeal politics of placation.”

“Washington has now effectively read Pakistan the riot act,” said Michael Kugelman, a Pakistan expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. If the Trump administration decides to take drastic measures, the relationship could “plunge into deep crisis,” he said. For the moment there is a “modest thaw,” as indicated by Tillerson’s visit, Kugelman said, but he added that U.S.-Pakistan relations will soon be “put to the test in a big way.”

Morello reported from Qatar. Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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