Pakistan’s foreign minister says the Trump administration is blaming Islamabad for America’s own failure to rout out terrorism in the region.
“We are not saying we are saints. Perhaps in the past we have made some mistakes,” Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif told reporters in Washington Thursday. “But since the last 3 or 4 years, we are whole-heartedly single-mindedly targeting these terrorists.”
His broadside is in response to comments by top Trump military chiefs this week accusing Pakistan of aiding terrorist groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani network – and placing the blame squarely on the country’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate.
“It is clear to me that the ISI has connections with terrorist groups,” said Marine General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking to the Senate armed services committee Tuesday.
Speaking alongside Dunford, Pentagon chief Jim Mattis issued a stark warning.
“We need to try one more time to make this strategy work with them, by, with and through the Pakistanis, and if our best efforts fail, the president is prepared to take whatever steps are necessary,” Mattis said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson softened the diplomatic blow by asserting that the U.S. does have a reliable partner in Pakistan. “We think there is opportunity for us to strengthen that relationship,” he said Wednesday, after meeting with Asif.
But his “good cop” turn pales next to the threat that Washington might step up drone strikes in Pakistan, as first reported by Reuters. Mattis said the U.S. may even consider downgrading Pakistan’s status as a major non-NATO ally.
The tough talk isn’t exactly new – Adm. Mike Mullen called the Haqqani network a “veritable arm” of the ISI back in 2011. But coming from two top Trump officials, it spurred a furious defense as the top Pakistani official held forth during a media roundtable at his country’s embassy in Washington – and afterward, to individual reporters.
“This is scapegoating – for what they have not achieved in 16 years, a small country like Pakistan achieved in two years,” Asif said in remarks to The Cipher Brief.
Asif was referring to Pakistan’s multiyear military campaign to drive militants out of the country’s lawless frontier province that borders Afghanistan and has served as a safe haven for the Taliban, the Haqqanis, al Qaeda, and more.
Pakistan insists the militant problem lies within Afghanistan and the responsibility with their forces to police the problem. Kabul says the same of Islamabad, in an endless round of bitter recriminations and finger-pointing.
U.S. officials have long expressed frustration that Pakistan cracks down on groups that attack its own people within its borders but gives weapons and aid to groups like the Taliban, to use as a lever of power and influence inside Afghanistan.
Pakistani officials say the Trump administration has asked them to reach out to the Taliban once again, but the foreign minister told reporters that Pakistan’s leverage over the Taliban had diminished.
Another Pakistani official said his country is wary of falling into the “trap” of convincing the Taliban to show up for secret talks, only to have them leaked – damaging to the Taliban and denting its trust of Pakistan. He described a two-year history of asking the Taliban to join talks at Washington’s request.
From Pakistan’s perspective, the fruitless task started in 2015, with a series of 5-way talks with the Taliban, Afghanistan, Pakistan, U.S. and China in attendance. Pakistan swore to Taliban leaders that it would stay secret, as the Taliban were worried about stoking internal dissent, especially with so many of their followers already defecting to the ISIS Khorasan Group. Yet each meeting was subsequently leaked to the media, making it successively harder for Pakistan to get the Taliban to come to the table, the official said, speaking anonymously as a condition of discussing the once-secret talks.
The CIA’s killing of Taliban leader Mullah Mansour by drone in 2016 helped derail the process further, and the nail in the coffin came when Afghanistan announced the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, a fact hidden from the group’s own members for two years, which launched internal infighting over succession that made it impossible to get consensus on returning to reconciliation talks, the official said.
That’s not exactly how a former U.S. intelligence official remembered it, saying the U.S. State Department was the driver that got the Taliban to the table – and that Pakistan continues to support terrorist groups that create havoc throughout the region, via the Pakistani ISI, with the full knowledge of the country’s army chiefs. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the contentious relationship.
But the foreign minister said he’d gotten no direction on what his country needed to do, despite meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster.
Spokesmen for the National Security Council and the State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Kim Dozier is the executive editor of The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @KimDozier.