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Pakistan continues to use Afghan Taliban as hedge against India: US commander

Washington: Pakistan continues to use Afghan Taliban as a “hedge” against India, a top US commander has told lawmakers, as he expressed America’s frustration over Islamabad’s failure to take concrete steps to deny safe havens to terrorist groups.
Marine Corps Lt Genenral Kenneth McKenzie’s remarks came days after US President Donald Trump sought Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s help in the Afghan peace process. The Trump administration, in the recent months, has intensified its efforts to seek a negotiated settlement of America’s longest war in Afghanistan where the US has lost over 2,400 soldiers since late 2001, when it invaded the country after the 9/11 terror attacks.
The Taliban are fighting to flush out US-led international forces and re-establish their regime in Afghanistan after their ouster in 2001. “Pakistan is an essential element in long-term stability in Afghanistan,” McKenzie told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday during his confirmation hearing for commander of the US Central Command (CENTCOM).
Pakistan could play a key role in facilitating talks between the Taliban and government of Afghanistan, he said. “Pakistan does not appear to be using the full extent of its influence to encourage the Taliban to come to the table,” he said.
“We continue to see the Taliban being utilised as a hedge against India rather than as part of a stable, reconciled Afghanistan,” McKenzie said.
His answers to the Senate Armed Services Committee come after it became public that Trump has written a letter to Imran Khan, seeking his help in the Afghan peace process. “President Trump sent a letter to Prime Minister Khan, requesting Pakistan’s full support to the US-led Afghan peace process and Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s upcoming trip to the region,” a spokesperson of the National Security Council, White House, told PTI.
“In the letter, the President recognises that Pakistan has the ability to deny the Taliban sanctuary on its territory,” the spokesperson said.
“The letter also makes it clear that Pakistan’s assistance with the Afghan peace process is fundamental to building an enduring US-Pakistan partnership,” the spokesperson said.
McKenzie told lawmakers that he did not see much of a change in Pakistan’s behaviour towards Afghanistan or its stand against terrorist groups. Despite Pakistan’s positive rhetoric in support of the US’ South Asia Strategy, violent extremist organisations (VEOs) operate along its border with Afghanistan, he said.
“While Pakistan has conducted some operations against VEOs in the country, they must continue to expand these operations and remain aggressively engaged,” McKenzie said. “Taking concrete steps that deny VEO safe havens in Pakistan, as well as VEO freedom of movement from Pakistan to Afghanistan, remains an important task that Pakistan needs to fulfil. Pakistan must leverage their influence over the Taliban leadership to help compel them to come to the table for reconciliation negotiations,” he added.
McKenzie said the US CENTCOM would continue to support the State Department as it works towards a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Afghanistan which includes ensuring that Islamabad’s equities are acknowledged in any future agreement.
“Pakistan’s action or inaction, as it relates to stability in Afghanistan, has often led to US’s frustration,” he said, adding that stability in the South Asia region remains the most important mutual strategic interest for both the US and Pakistan. “We must continue to engage with the Pakistani leadership to realise how we can achieve this mutual interest,” McKenzie said. “I do believe that any solution in Afghanistan is going to require the assistance of Pakistan. It has to be a regional solution, not just a solution centred in Afghanistan,” he said.
It is in Pakistan’s long-term interest to have a government in Afghanistan that is stable, and that that they can do business with, he said. “So I think Pakistan has not shown indications, by and large over the last few years, of being a serious partner in this regard,” McKenzie said.
US Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad on Tuesday met Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi in Islamabad. McKenzie said that the meeting was to see if the US can find some way forward. It will be hard to reach a settlement without some form of assistance or Pakistan.
“Probably Pakistan knows very clearly that their assistance will be required to reach an end-state in Afghanistan. I think the task that we have is to make it attractive to them so that they see that it is in their best interest to do that,” McKenzie said.
The size of the Taliban in Afghanistan is now estimated to be around 60,000 and they control about 44 per cent of the Afghan territory, he said, adding that it is not a good idea to leave this war-torn country at this point of time.
“If we left precipitously right now, I do not believe they (Afghan security forces) would be able to successfully defend their country. I think it’s a conditions-based approach we’re going to go through this winter. We’ll see how they do in the first-generation phase of this winter,” he said.
Responding to questions, McKenzie refused to give a timeline for the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. (PTI)

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