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Tillerson talks tough on Pakistan's harboring of terrorists -- but will it have any effect?

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had strong words for Pakistan this week, calling on Islamabad to tackle terror havens within its borders on his maiden tour of South Asia as the US' top diplomat.

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Huizhong Wu (CNN)
NEW DELHI (CNN) — US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had strong words for Pakistan this week, calling on Islamabad to tackle terror havens within its borders on his maiden tour of South Asia as the US' top diplomat.

Meeting top government and military officials in the Pakistani capital on Tuesday, he pressed them to step up their "efforts to eradicate militants and terrorists operating within the country," according to a statement from the US Embassy there.

Speaking a day later during his visit to Pakistan's arch regional rival India, he reiterated his stance, calling into question the "stability and security" of Pakistan's government.

"As these terrorist organizations have enlarged their numbers and have enlarged their strength and their capability within Pakistan's borders, this can lead to a threat to Pakistan's own stability," he warned during a press conference with his Indian counterpart, Sushma Swaraj.

"It is not in anyone's interest that the government of Pakistan be destabilized."

Tillerson didn't name any specific groups but Pakistan's security establishment stands accused of a long history of harboring links to terror groups such as the Haqqani Network, Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Pakistan denies that it gives sanctuary to terrorists.

Harboring terror?

The US government asserts that terror havens for groups inside Pakistan are a key hurdle to bringing stability to neighboring Afghanistan, where the White House is seeking greater regional involvement to help end the 16-year conflict.

However, experts are doubtful that the tough rhetoric from the US will change anything.

"What the military establishment (in Pakistan) has been saying is they're not going to fundamentally change their approach to Afghanistan, as long as what they think there's going to be continued security threats not only from Afghanistan but also from India," Hassan Javid, a political science professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences, said

Pakistan has historically had a "soft spot" for anti-India terrorist groups based in Kashmir and groups like the Haqqani network and the Taliban that target Afghanistan, because it views Afghanistan as a strategic resource, Javid said, in case of an attack from India.

The country's security policy, which is dictated by the military establishment, has a deep-rooted "paranoia" about India, Javid says.

"The entire institutional culture is geared toward preparing for some type of inevitable conflict with India."

Long-held complaints

This isn't the first time the US has pressed Pakistan on reining in terrorism, especially support to the Taliban.

In his first term, then-President Barack Obama said that Pakistan "needs our help" against al Qaeda, acknowledging the death toll that terror groups have wreaked on both American and Pakistani populations.

"Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out al Qaeda and the violent extremists within its borders," he said.

"And we will insist that action be taken -- one way or another -- when we have intelligence about high-level terrorist targets. "

In August, his successor renewed the pressure on Islamabad when he announced his intention to recommit the US to the ongoing Afghan war.

During a speech, US President Donald Trump said Washington could "no longer be silent about Pakistan's safe havens for terrorist organizations."

Partial success

The pressure has worked to some extent over the course of US involvement, say analysts.

"(Pakistan) has taken action against its own rebels. It's not taken action against Afghan Taliban and it has restrained, but not abolished the jihadis operating against India," Anatol Lieven, a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and author of "Pakistan: A Hard Country," told CNN.

But further crackdowns are unlikely. Ayesha Siddiqa, a research associate at the South Asia Institute at London's School of Oriental and African studies says that there is "no evidence of the military reassessing or assessing its long-term policy on what do they do with the militants."

The American pressure is also being perceived negatively, warns Khalid Rehman, the director general at the Institute of Policy Studies in Islamabad.

"The Pakistan government has said whatever we need to do, we are doing it," he said.

"The perception here is that this kind of pressure from America is a reflection of the way the Americans want to design the region."

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