US warns Pakistan to close Afghan militant 'safe havens' or risk losing military ally status
One day after President Donald Trump unveiled a new strategy to force the Taliban to negotiate a political settlement with the Kabul government, his top diplomat upped the heat on Islamabad.
Trump had warned that Pakistan's support for the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani extremist network would have consequences, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has now spelled these out.
"We have some leverage," Tillerson told reporters, as he fleshed out Trump's speech, "in terms of aid, their status as a non-NATO alliance partner – all of that can be put on the table."
As one of 16 "Non-NATO Major Allies," Pakistan benefits from billions of dollars in aid and has access to some advanced US military technology banned from other countries.
This year, the United States has already withheld $350 million in military funding over concerns Pakistan is not doing enough to fight terror, but the alliance itself was not in question.
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Tillerson said Washington wants to work with Pakistan as it expands its own support for Kabul in the battle against the Taliban, but warned it to close militant safe havens.
Some of Pakistan's critics in Washington have urged Trump to go further, by authorising US strikes against militants inside Pakistan or declaring Pakistan a "state sponsor of terror."
Officials have not yet brandished the designation threat, which could lead to severe sanctions and legal threats to Pakistani officials, but Tillerson did not rule out strikes.
The United States has hit targets within Pakistan before, most famously when Trump's predecessor Barack Obama ordered US special forces to kill al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.
"The president has been clear that we are going to attack terrorists wherever they live," Tillerson said.
"We have put people on notice that if you're providing safe haven to terrorists, be warned – we are going to engage those providing safe haven and ask them to change what they are doing."
Tillerson added that, aside from the Afghans, Pakistan has more to gain "than any other nation" from an end to the fighting.
Both Tillerson and Trump also called on Pakistan's long-standing rival and fellow nuclear power India to become more involved in Afghanistan, an idea that is anathema to Islamabad.
All this drew a hurt response from Pakistan, which has been a US ally since the Cold War, despite tensions over its rogue nuclear programme and clashes with emerging great power India.
Seeking to rebut Trump's "disappointing" allegation that it had harboured "agents of chaos," Pakistan's foreign ministry re-stated its commitment to fighting terrorism.
"No country in the world has suffered more than Pakistan from the scourge of terrorism, often perpetrated from outside our borders," it said in a statement.
"It is, therefore disappointing that the US policy statement ignores the enormous sacrifices rendered by the Pakistani nation in this effort," it continued.
During the 1980s, Pakistan worked with the United States and Saudi Arabia to support Islamist rebels against what was the then pro-Soviet Afghan regime in Kabul.
But after the rise to power of the Pakistani-backed Taliban and al-Qaeda attacks on US cities of September 11, 2001, the US has pressured Islamabad to cut its links with the militants.
Pakistan has conducted campaigns against the Pakistani branch of the Taliban – which threatens its own stability – and turned a blind eye to a US drone campaign against al-Qaeda leaders.
But it fears the rise of an Indian-backed government in Kabul, and maintains support for some Taliban and other factions to keep its influence across the long, lawless border.
"As a matter of policy, Pakistan does not allow use of its territory against any country," the foreign ministry said.
"Instead of relying on the false narrative of safe havens, the US needs to work with Pakistan to eradicate terrorism."
Beyond the stand-off with Pakistan, Trump's new strategy also authorises US generals to deploy more American troops to support Afghan government forces in what is now a 16-year-old conflict.