ISLAMABAD (AFP) – US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson got a frosty welcome to Pakistan on Tuesday (Oct 24) after Washington turned up the heat on Islamabad for allegedly providing “safe havens” for Taleban militants.
America’s top diplomat was quietly greeted by a mid-level Pakistani Foreign Office official and the US ambassador David Hale at the military airport in the garrison city of 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 of Land Cruisers amid tight security to the US embassy in Islamabad’s diplomatic enclave, before meeting with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, the powerful 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 nuclear-armed Pakistan by a senior Trump administration official and comes months after the US President angrily accused Islamabad of harbouring “agents of chaos” who could attack US-led Nato forces in neighbouring 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 Taleban. They are believed to have links to Pakistan’s shadowy 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.
During his Afghan visit on Monday, Tillerson told reporters Pakistan needs to “take a clear-eyed view of the situation that they are confronted with”.
On Tuesday, Tillerson told Abbasi that Pakistan was “so important” to regional security as the pair shook hands ahead of the meeting.
“We are committed in the war against terror. We have produced results. And we are looking forward to moving ahead with the US and building a tremendous relationship,” Abbasi replied, according to a pool report.
US and Pakistani sources say Tillerson’s visit to Islamabad will be followed later in the year by Defence Secretary Jim Mattis as Trump seeks to send a tough message to the wayward Cold War ally.
NO PLEASING THE US?
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 the US 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 US military technology banned from other countries.
Political analyst Zahid Hussain said there may be little Islamabad can do at this point to convince the US it is acting in good faith.
“The perception here is whatever they do, it is not going to please the Americans,” Hussain told AFP.
Earlier this month, Pakistani forces acting on American intelligence said they had rescued a US-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.
Tillerson’s visit to Afghanistan set social media aflutter on Tuesday after Afghan officials released a photo that had seemingly been doctored to disguise the fact that it took place at Bagram, a secure military base, rather than Kabul, which was hit by multiple militant attacks last week.
An image released by the State Department of the same meeting featured several details, including a clock and fire alarm, that had been removed from the Afghan image.