ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, on his first visit to Pakistan in that role, called on its top military and civilian officials Monday to “redouble” efforts to prevent Islamist militants from using the country as a refuge and a launchpad for attacks on Afghanistan and elsewhere.
But Mattis seemed to tone down the sharp language he has used in congressional hearings and other settings to accuse Pakistan of harboring Afghan Taliban fighters. Instead, he adopted a milder, more diplomatic approach aimed at finding “common ground.”
Statements from the Pakistani prime minister’s office and the Pentagon late Monday, after Mattis had left the country, described his interactions with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, the defense minister, and military and intelligence chiefs in positive, bland terms.
The U.S. Embassy said he praised Pakistan’s “sacrifices in the war against terrorism” while insisting that it “must redouble its efforts to confront” militants within its borders.
Abbasi was even more upbeat, saying in a statement that both countries share a commitment to the war against terrorism and asserting that there are “no safe havens” for militants in Pakistan. He emphasized Mattis’s comments about continuing the long-term relationship between the former Cold War allies and “deepening cooperation” for the common goal of “eliminating terrorism from the region.”
There was no public mention from either side of the repeated threats by President Trump and other top U.S. officials that Washington will take strong action against Pakistan if it fails to stop sheltering militants. The punitive measures could include significant cuts in military and economic aid, retracting Pakistan’s status as a “major non-NATO ally,” and declaring it a state sponsor of terrorism.
Pakistani army officials said they told Mattis that “Pakistan has done much more than its due share despite capacity constraints.” They said Mattis told them that his aim was “not to make demands.” In a statement, the officials said the U.S. defense chief expressed concern that “a few elements” use Pakistani territory to promote terrorism in Afghanistan, and they said they are “prepared to look into the possibility” that such “miscreants” may be taking cover in Afghan refugee communities.
But other U.S. officials have continued to assert that Pakistan has not taken sufficient action, despite repeated meetings with U.S. military officials and a visit from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in late October.
“We have been very direct and very clear with the Pakistanis. . . . We have not seen those changes implemented yet,” Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said at a news conference in Kabul last week. But he, too, said the United States is “hoping to work together with the Pakistanis” to eliminate cross-border terrorism and did not mention any sanctions.
In Washington on Saturday, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said the United States will do “everything we can to ensure that safe havens no longer exist” if Pakistan does not do so. One of the measures would be an expansion of U.S. drone strikes deeper into Pakistan’s heartland. Such a move would alarm the populace and provoke the government, which has quietly cooperated with U.S. drone strikes in tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.
Afghan officials have repeatedly accused Pakistan of allowing the Taliban and other militant groups, especially the Haqqani network, to take shelter and launch attacks from sanctuaries on its side of the border. They also accuse Pakistan’s military and its intelligence services of orchestrating attacks in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan. Pakistan has always denied the accusations.
Despite the cordiality of the Monday meetings, the previous threats from the Trump administration were very much on the minds of Pakistani officials and analysts in the capital as Mattis arrived at midday for a brief stop before flying to Kuwait. The U.S. demands that Pakistan “do more” have angered many Pakistanis, who insist that Washington should put pressure on Afghanistan to stop sheltering militants on its side of the 1,700-mile border.
Some commentators suggested that an enormous bomb dropped in August by U.S. warplanes just over the border in eastern Afghanistan, which had no apparent immediate purpose and fell on a deserted former militant hideout in the mountains, was actually intended as a warning to Pakistan.
Syed Talat Hussain, a longtime Pakistani media analyst, wrote Monday that the Trump administration has decided to “bring Islamabad to its knees” and is only “going through the motions of engagement” with polite visits like those by Tillerson and Mattis, who will be followed shortly by Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Public “niceties and contrived bonhomie,” Hussain added, are for show.