Trump's New Defence Secretary Was Obama's Go-To Man to Keep Pakistani Generals Happy

In the aftermath of the Raymond Davis and bin Laden affairs, General James Mattis was key in maintaining ties with top Pakistani military leadership.

US president-elect Donald Trump with his defence secretary General James Mattis. Credit: Reuters

US president-elect Donald Trump with his defence secretary General James Mattis. Credit: Reuters

New Delhi: The next US secretary of defence was the Obama administration’s main man to keep a line open and bring ties with the top Pakistani military leadership back on an even keel in the dark days following the arrest of a CIA contractor and the killing of Osama bin Laden.

General James Mattis, whose appointment was announced by president-elect Donald Trump’s transition team on Thursday, was the US Central Command (CENTCOM) head from 2010 to 2013.

In January 2011, CIA contractor Raymond Davis shot dead two men in Lahore, which triggered a major diplomatic stand-off between Washington and Islamabad. Seven weeks after the incident, Davis was let off after $2 mn was paid as blood money to the next of kin.

Even as bilateral tensions were high, Mattis, who had described partnering with Pakistan as one of the key tasks for CENTCOM, commended the Pakistan military for making “very significant moves” against terrorists at a Senate Armed Service House hearing in March 2011 on the “Posture of US Central Command”.

While New Delhi was not part of his area of reach, Mattis recognised that “India’s influence impacts the strategic calculations of Pakistan and, to some extent, virtually every other country in the CENTCOM AOR [Area of Responsibility]”.

“We recognize that Pakistan’s long-standing tensions with India are an important part of Pakistan’s strategic decision-making calculus and military force posture. However, the presence of extremist sanctuaries in Pakistan significantly impacts our progress in Afghanistan, and with the Pakistan military’s help we are taking important steps to improve cross-border operations,” he said.

Mattis had said at the hearing that the Pakistani tribal regions were the “principal sanctuary for Al-Qaeda and a safe haven for other extremist groups, enabling them to threaten the population and coalition forces in Afghanistan, the people and government in Pakistan, and US and Western interests globally”.

Praising Rawalpindi for making “impressive strides” in combating terrorists in FATA, he had also highlighted that Pakistan had deployed “upwards of 140,000 troops along Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan, a significant portion of which were drawn from Pakistan’s border with India”.

“While Pakistan’s operations are acting as the ― “hammer’ on their side of the border, combined Afghan and ISAF forces are poised to defeat displaced insurgents, acting as the ―anvil. Afghan Border Police and other combined security forces are manning outposts along the border and armed drones and close combat aviation are monitoring previously-identified mountain passes that insurgents will likely use as they seek sanctuary in Afghanistan”.

Mattis also lobbied for a consistent flow of US security assistance, which he termed as “critical” for the Pakistan partnership.

The month after the Senate hearing, Mattis travelled to Pakistan – breaking the ice as the highest-ranking US official to travel to Islamabad after the Davis affair.

Of course, within a month of the visit, Washington faced another crisis of faith regarding Islamabad after a Navy Seal team killed Al-Qaeda leader bin Laden in his multi-storied house, just a crow’s flight from the top Pakistani military school. It left a legacy of deep mistrust between the two governments, which continues to linger even today.

If that was not enough, Mattis had to confront the fallout from US forces in Afghanistan mistakenly targeting two Pakistani military border checkpoints, which left over a dozen soldiers dead. Even as Washington refused to apologise, Pakistan closed NATO supply lines and the Shamsi airfield base, while anti-American protests erupted all over the country.

In March 2012, Mattis was once again trying to calm down Congressmen baying for Pakistan’s blood over bin Laden, as attitudes against Islamabad hardened across Capitol Hill and intelligence circles. Mattis told the House Armed Services that he “did not believe that anyone in Pakistan was aware that the Al-Qaeda chief was in Abbottabad”, The News reported. The article also quoted him as saying that “he was well aware that nobody was in the knowledge of Osama’s presence in Abbottabad”.

On relations with Pakistan, he gave a more mixed picture than a year before. “There are disagreements on some aspects of who’s the enemy and who is not, and over years some of this has shifted below both of our feet but the threat that the enemy presents is a threat to Pakistan as much as it is to Afghanistan,” he said.

But, he went onto to say that despite differences, Islamabad was a key ally. “We don’t have 100 percent common ground about it, but it is not a showstopper,” he said.

In the 2012 hearing, Mattis expressed a sense of gratitude towards Pakistan for their help after 9/11. “Gen Mattis said he could not have gone to Southern Afghanistan without Pakistani support in 2001,” The News reported.

During the Afghan invasion, Mattis, a brigadier general at that time, was in charge of Task Force-58, whose troops were the first to land near Kandahar to operate a forward operating base.

In January 2013, President Barack Obama announced in his State of the Union address that there US troops in Afghanistan would be halved by February 2014. In the month of his retirement in March 2013, Mattis said at another Senate hearing that he had recommended that 13,600 American soldiers should remain in Afghanistan after the draw down began in 2014. The final figure at that time was 9800 American soldiers.

In a February 2015 article published by the Hoover Institution, Mattis talked of the need for a “refreshed national strategy”. On Afghanistan, he specifically pointed out that that the debacle in Iraq after the US troops left the country had to be avoided.

“In Afghanistan we need to consider if we’re asking for the same outcome there as we saw last summer in Iraq if we pull out all our troops on the Administration’s proposed timeline. Echoing the military advice given on the same issue in Iraq, gains achieved at great cost against our enemy in Afghanistan are reversible. We should recognize that we may not want this fight but the barbarity of an enemy that kills women and children and has refused to break with Al Qaeda needs to be fought.”

By that time, the US administration had begun to slow down and eventually postpone the return of US troops as planned by 2016. From the initial plan to have only 5500 troops, the US will now have 8400 soldiers after the end of this year.

Indian officials will find some solace in Mattis’s view on the continued US military presence in Afghanistan, but his tempered view on the usefulness of the Pakistan military in combating terrorism may not find many takers.

File photo of General Michael Flynn speaking at a Donald Trump rally in Jacksonville, Florida. Credit: YouTube

File photo of General Michael Flynn speaking at a Donald Trump rally in Jacksonville, Florida. Credit: YouTube

Cabinet conflict?

It remains to be seen if Trump’s defence secretary and national security advisor, Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn, will play a tug-of-war on giving some leeway to Islamabad.

Flynn, who had worked under Mattis, has been rather clear that it cannot be business as usual in ties with Pakistan.

In his 2016 book The Field of Fight, Flynn said that “countries who pretend to be our friends” will have to “choose” in the fight against Islamic radicalism or “we are going to treat them harshly”,

“As we do that, we need to have some tough love conversations with the leaders of countries who pretend to be our friends, but who also collaborate with our enemies. Countries like Pakistan need to be told that we will not tolerate the existence of training camps and safe havens for Taliban, Haqqani, and al Qaeda forces on their territory, nor will we permit their banks and other financial institutions to move illicit funds for the terror network. They are going to have to choose, and if they continue to help the jihadis, we are going to treat them harshly, cutting them off from American assistance, and operating against enemy safe havens.”

The Iran factor

While there might be a bit of gap between Flynn and Mattis on how to handle Af-Pak, they seemingly have the same view on Iran – the dominant threat to the US.

“It was a huge strategic mistake for the United States to invade Iraq militarily. If, as we claimed, our basic mission after 9/11 was the defeat of the terrorists and their state supporters, then our primary target should have been Tehran, not Baghdad, and the method should have been political—support of the internal Iranian opposition”.

Flynn, formerly chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency, expounded that Iran was giving shelter to the al-Qaeda after they left Afghanistan. “This meant that the world’s preeminent Sunni terrorist organization had an operational base within the world’s preeminent Shi’ite country,” claims Flynn.

He wrote that the Iran-al-Qaeda link would come to the front if Obama administration permitted the publication of documents seized from bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound. It will be interesting to check if the incoming Trump administration will accelerate the release of the bin Laden documents, which are being released in tranches by the office of director of national intelligence.

Flynn’s cabinet colleague also considers Tehran as the primary enemy. In February 2013, Mattis gave the keynote address at Foreign Policy Research Institute’s annual dinner, where he lobbied the high-powered audience to remain engaged in middle-east despite lowering of US dependence on Saudi oil.

While talking of the importance of standing beside steadfast Arab allies like Jordan and the UAE, he said “We support our friends and allies in the region against violence extremism and any bellicose nation. And there is one with external design and you know who that is Iran. Every morning I woke up, I had three primary concerns, that was Iran, Iran and Iran. That was what I woke up to each day as commander of Central Command”.