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US-Pak relations: Could Hafiz Saeed’s release be the last straw for the Trump admin?

Frustration with Pakistan has been rising, and the “repercussions” threatened by the White House was the most explicit expression of it yet.

world Updated: Dec 01, 2017 20:39 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times, Washington
Hafiz Saeed,Donald Trump,Rex Tillerson
Hafiz Saeed has launched an improbable bid to have himself struck off UN list of terrorists.(File Photo)

It’s been a week since the United States called for the “immediate re-arrest” of Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed, threatening Pakistan with “repercussions”, but the terrorist mastermind remains free and has launched an improbable bid to have himself struck off UN list of terrorists.

Gen John Nicholson — the top US general in Afghanistan — on Tuesday noted that more than 100 days have passed since President Donald Trump’s South Asia strategy put Pakistan on notice and demanded it stop sheltering terrorists, but “we haven’t seen those changes yet”.

Frustration with Pakistan has been rising, and the “repercussions” threatened by the White House was the most explicit expression of it yet. Speculation about options for the threatened repercussion, which the White House has not explained, has ranged from stripping Pakistan of its status as a major non-NATO ally — bestowed in 2004 in exchange for support in Afghanistan — to declaring it a state sponsor of terrorism.

Pakistan’s continued obduracy despite public appeals and threats from the US hasn’t gone unnoticed. “There is very little patience in this White House and the administration for Pakistan and it must be careful not to waste it,” an official said on condition of anonymity.

Asked about the timeline given to Pakistan for re-arresting Saeed, a spokesperson for the National Security Council of the White House told Hindustan Times: “We will be discussing (this issue) with the Pakistanis in private”.

There is speculation that defence secretary James Mattis might be the one to carry out this “private” discussion when he visits Pakistan, likely to take place next week.

“He might as a former military man and a general have a heart to heart with Pakistani generals and impress upon the need to step up their counter-terrorism measures,” said a South Asian diplomat.

Two months after Trump’s South Asia strategy was announced, Mattis had told lawmakers that the US would “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”.

And asked if withdrawing Pakistan’s status as a major non-NATO ally could be among the options being considered to deal with Pakistan, he had said, “I am sure it will be”.

Gen Nicholson’s remarks from earlier in the week capture well the latest thinking on Pakistan in the American leadership. Asked if Pakistan’s behaviour has changed since the unveiling o the South Asia strategy, Nicholson, said, “In terms of changes thus far this year, again, policy was announced (on) August 21, it’s now a hundred days later. So, no, we haven’t seen those changes yet.

“We’ve had a lot of senior-level engagement — secretary of state (Rex Tillerson), Gen (Joseph) Votel (who heads the US central command, which deals with Pakistan). We’ve had senior delegations from the state department and national security council travel over there as well. They’ve all met with the Pakistani leadership.

“Pakistani leadership has come to Kabul and met with President (Ashraf) Ghani. They identified certain steps that they were going to take. We’ve not yet seen those steps play out.”

To a question about where he believes the Taliban leadership is based, he said the tactical-level leadership is in the field in Afghanistan, but added: “There’s a reason that the two leadership centres of the Taliban are called the Quetta Shura and the Peshawar Shura. Those are cities in Pakistan. So I’d say the senior leadership still resides in Pakistan.”

First Published: Dec 01, 2017 20:39 IST