U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in Pakistan on Monday as Washington pressures its wayward ally to eliminate militant safe havens, days after Pakistani authorities freed an alleged mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
Mattis landed at an air force base in Rawalpindi bordering Islamabad, according to a pool report, before heading to the U.S. embassy. During the brief stopover in the capital, he is set to hold talks with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
Mattis’s first visit to the country as defense secretary of defense comes as the U.S. pushes its longtime ally to do more to combat insurgents who allegedly use bases in Pakistan’s tribal belt to target NATO troops in Afghanistan. Relations suffered a further blow after a Pakistani court ordered the release of firebrand cleric Hafiz Saeed in late November, prompting a furious response from the White House.
Saeed heads the U.N.-listed terrorist group Jamaat-ud-Dawa and has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head. He had been under house arrest but was released after a court in Lahore said officials had not provided any evidence of his role in the days-long assault on India’s capital, which killed more than 160 people. The decision to release Saeed coincided with the beleaguered government’s capitulation to Islamist protesters holding a sit-in in the federal capital.
The deal, which the military helped broker, saw the federal law minister resign over blasphemy allegations. It sent shockwaves through the country, sparking fears that the military was doing little to keep extremism in check after supporting the demands of a small group of hardliners.
President Donald Trump first signaled that the U.S. was reassessing its fractious relations with Pakistan during a televised speech in August, launching a blistering attack on Islamabad for harboring “agents of chaos.”
The remarks triggered a series of high-level diplomatic meetings in the U.S. and Pakistan, but Islamabad has given few signs of concessions to Washington.
Pakistan has consistently rejected claims it supports Taliban-allied forces, insisting it maintains contacts with insurgents only as a means to bring them to the table for peace talks. Islamabad, which has long harbored fears of encirclement by rival New Delhi, has also bristled at Trump’s calls for an increased Indian role in rebuilding Afghanistan.
Last week the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, said Islamabad had not carried out the “clear” demands made by Washington. “We have not seen those changes implemented yet,” he told reporters.
But en route to Pakistan Mattis told reporters he would not use pressure as a tactic and insisted he would do “some listening.” When asked if he would “prod” Islamabad to take more action, he replied: “That’s not the way I deal with issues. I believe that we work hard on finding the common ground, and then we work together, so that’s the approach I want to take.”