U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson got a frosty welcome in Pakistan on Tuesday after Washington turned up the heat on Islamabad for allegedly providing “safe havens” for Taliban militants.
America’s top diplomat was quietly greeted by a mid-level Foreign Office official and the U.S. ambassador David Hale at the military airport in Rawalpindi, an AFP photographer saw—a welcome that, while marked with smiles, was devoid of the pomp that usually accompanies high-level visits. He was then driven in a convoy amid tight security to the U.S. embassy in Islamabad’s diplomatic enclave, before meeting with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and other top officials.
It was not clear how long the meeting lasted, but the secretary left Pakistan for India on Tuesday evening, less than four hours after landing.
The visit was the first to Pakistan by a senior Trump administration official and comes months after the U.S. president angrily accused Islamabad of harboring “agents of chaos” who could attack U.S.-led NATO forces in neighboring Afghanistan. It follows on the heels of an unannounced stop in Afghanistan on Monday, where Tillerson reiterated America’s commitment to the country and warned that Washington has made “very specific requests” of Pakistan over militancy.
Washington and Kabul have long accused Islamabad of supporting Afghan militant groups, including the Taliban. They are believed to have links to Pakistan’s military establishment, which aims to use them as a regional bulwark against arch-nemesis India. Pakistan has repeatedly denied the charge, insisting it maintains contacts only to try to bring the militants to peace talks.
“Tillerson reiterated President Trump’s message that Pakistan must increase its efforts to eradicate militants and terrorists operating within the country,” a statement from the U.S. embassy said on Tuesday. But Tillerson also expressed his appreciation to Pakistan for the sacrifices it has made in fighting militancy and for its help in securing the release of a U.S.-Canadian family held captive by the Taliban for five years.
“We are committed in the war against terror. We have produced results. And we are looking forward to moving ahead with the U.S. and building a tremendous relationship,” Abbasi replied, according to a pool report.
A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office later said the U.S. and Pakistan had “agreed to build upon the understandings reached in the dialogue process”—but also linked regional stability to Pakistan’s dispute with India over the Himalayan region of Kashmir.
Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since the end of British colonial rule in 1947. Both claim it in full and have fought two wars over the mountainous region.
U.S. and Pakistani sources say Tillerson’s visit to Islamabad will be followed later in the year by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, as Trump seeks to send a tough message to its ally.
The U.S.-Pakistan relationship has waxed and waned dramatically since Donald Trump took office in January. Pakistan said the U.S. 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 harboring militants saw Islamabad angrily hit back at the claims, insisting the U.S. took no account of the thousands of lives lost and billions spent in fighting extremism.
Following the August 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 U.S. military technology banned from other countries.
Political analyst Zahid Hussain said there may be little Islamabad can do at this point to convince the U.S. it is acting in good faith. “The perception here is whatever they do, it is not going to please the Americans,” said Hussain.
Earlier this month Pakistani forces acting on American intelligence said they had rescued a U.S.-Canadian family held by the Taliban for five years, sparking hopes that ties would improve. The rescue was followed by drone strikes on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border targeting long-time foes of both Washington and Islamabad.