US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tackled several of the world’s most sensitive issues during a whirlwind trip aimed at preventing Afghanistan from falling back into chaos, easing Kurdish-Iraqi tensions that could allow Islamic State to revive, and isolating Iran as much as possible.
Unsurprisingly, Tillerson was welcomed in Afghanistan and India, where President Donald Trump’s administration is trying to foster a growing partnership as part of his recently announced policy for the region. His reception was more muted in Pakistan, which is under increasing pressure to crackdown on extremist groups and eliminate their safehavens.
Those stops on the five-day, six-nation trip epitomized the diplomatic tightrope that Washington faces, along with the risks in dealing with them face to face. Likely mindful that insurgents attacked Kabul’s international airport hours after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visited a month ago, the stops in Kabul and Afghanistan lasted just hours, and neither involved an overnight stay.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani went to Bagram Airbase to meet with Tillerson, whose visit was not announced in advance, to discuss how to deal with the Taliban insurgency that has resulted in what US military officials have called a stalemate.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left) and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Photo from US State Department.
Faiz Mohammad Zaland, an Afghan analyst who attended a number of conferences with Taliban officials abroad, welcomed Tillerson’s proposal for Afghanistan to draw the Taliban into the peace process, as long as the group renounces terrorism and violent extremism.
“We’ve made clear to the Taliban: You will never achieve a military victory,” Tillerson told a news conference Oct. 26. “Do you want your children and grandchildren fighting this same fight?Because that’s the way it’s going to be if you don’t find a different way to go forward.”
Akbar Agha, an ex-Taliban official, told VOA the Taliban want a change in the system of government and insist on a pullout of foreign forces from Afghanistan at a time the US and its allies have been beefing up their presence.
In Islamabad, Tillerson was greeted by a low-level Foreign Ministry official and then taken to meet separately with the civilian government and the military, underscoring the difficulty of putting together a united policy when each side has different priorities. There has been strong speculation for years of ties between Pakistan’s intelligence service and extremist groups, and the military’s primary focus is on tense relations with India.
And while the US repeatedly has said it feels that having Pakistan play a positive role is key to success in Afghanistan, there are signs that Islamabad is hedging its bets by growing closer to China – which has undertaken mutually beneficial, multi-billion-dollar development projects in the country – and bolstering relations with Russia in case Washington were to cut back on aid.
Former Pakistani Ambassador Ali Sarwar Naqvi said the low-key welcome shouldn’t be seen as a slight, saying then-President Bill Clinton was given similar treatment when he visited in 2000.
“The meetings were important, the welcome was not,” Naqvi said.
Tillerson described his talks in Pakistan as “frank and candid.”
“We probably listened 80 percent of the time and we talked 20 percent,” Tillerson said. “We put our expectations forward in no uncertain terms. We’re going to chart our course consistent with what Pakistan not just says they do, but what they actually do.”
The two sides reportedly exchanged lists of terrorists they want apprehended or eliminated, and they are seeking help in pursuing them.
The reception for Tillerson was much warmer in India, which is clearly happy about the US plan for the country to play an enhanced role in Afghanistan – where it earlier stepped in to provide air transport of Afghan produce and other goods when Pakistan closed border crossings – and the rest of the region.
“He must be very tired, but the good part was that his last stop is a country that is a close friend,” said Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swarah. “It is said visiting a close friend’s place cures you of tiredness. I hope Secretary Tillerson is not feeling tired any more.”
After wrapping up his first trip to the region, Tillerson said his goal had been to expand on Trump’s new policy and what role is envisioned for each country.
“What we’ve received in the region is enormously positive over the South Asian strategy,” he said. “People have said this is the first time we’ve seen a strategy.”
“I think many have said, yes, we’ve been fighting a war in Afghanistan for 16 years; when we’ve been fighting, it was 16 one-year strategies. There was never anything in mind as to how does this come to an end,” Tillerson said. “We now have to go execute.”