Pakistan appears to have hardened its stance to U.S. President Donald Trump’s recently announced Afghan and South Asia strategy; but, officials dismiss suggestions Islamabad is seeking “confrontation” or a “rupture” in its decades-old relations with Washington.
While announcing his long-awaited policy last week, Trump accused Pakistan of housing “agents of chaos” and “the very terrorists” the U.S. military has been battling in Afghanistan. The policy also attempts to give Pakistan’s archival, India, a major role in security-related regional efforts.
Pakistani leaders responded by saying the U.S. terror charges are an attempt to “scapegoat” their country and accused the American military of failing to defeat the 16-year-old Afghan Taliban insurgency.
Moreover, Pakistan postponed Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells’ visit to Islamabad, scheduled for Monday, “until a mutually convenient time.”
The development came shortly after Islamabad decided against sending Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif to Washington, where he was scheduled to meet with his U.S. counterpart.
More engagement needed
Instead of acknowledging Pakistan’s “unprecedented” sacrifices in fighting terrorism, Washington’s new Afghan strategy is nothing but the same “old tactics of bullying and browbeating,” according to Pakistani Senator Mushahid Hussain.
“That attempt has already backfired,” says Hussain, chairman of the Pakistani Senate’s Defense Committee. “That’s why Pakistan has said very clearly neither the foreign minister is going to Washington nor are we willing to receive any American delegation to Islamabad,” Hussain noted.
The influential Pakistani senator emphasized the importance of engagement between the two countries, saying only through collective efforts, also involving key regional stakeholders, can the long-standing Afghan problem be resolved.
“I think the best way forward would be for the United States administration to review its wrong policy, not place blame on Pakistan and consider Pakistan as part of the solution rather than part of the problem and not look at issues and the region through the lenses of India,” asserted Hussain.
Islamabad alleges rival India is using its growing influence in Afghanistan to foment terrorism and violence in Pakistan.
Pakistan has long ignored U.S. and Afghan demands to use force against Taliban insurgents hiding on its soil. Officials maintain millions of Afghan refugees are in the country and it is impossible for authorities to identify suspected militants who are using the displaced population for shelter.
“Pakistan cannot bring Afghan war into Pakistan,” the chief of the country’s powerful military, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, reiterated Sunday. He was talking to his Afghan counterpart on the sidelines of four-nation counterterrorism military-level talks in Tajikistan, with China also in attendance.
“Pakistan has already cleared all its areas indiscriminately and has started unilateral border security measures including fencing,” Bajwa said.
Pakistan defends efforts
Suspicion in Washington about Islamabad's efforts against terrorism stem from the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces deep inside Pakistan in 2011 and the elimination of Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansoor in a U.S. drone strike in the country's southwest in 2016.
Pakistani officials cite the U.S. military’s assessments the Taliban has extended its control or influence to more than 40 percent of the Afghan territory since the withdrawal of international combat forces from Afghanistan in 2014.
“They don't need hideouts or sanctuaries in Pakistan. They have vast territory [under their control], which is beyond Kabul’s writ, at their disposal. Why would they come to Pakistan for sanctuaries?” Foreign Minister Asif asked over the weekend.
Pakistani officials say the fencing of nearly 2,600-kilometer largely porous border with Afghanistan and building of new forts as well as outposts will effectively deter terrorist infiltration.
Despite financial and logistical challenges, the massive project is expected to be completed within next two years, says army spokesman Major-General Asif Ghafoor.
The border management program has already reduced terrorist attacks in the country and Pakistan would like Afghans to introduce similar steps on their side, he said. “We are even ready to fund and fence the border as well as build security outposts for Afghan security forces on their side of the frontier,” Ghafoor said.
Within a year, all traditional crossing points on the Afghan border will be opened for travelers and traders because Pakistan’s aim is to “hurt terrorists” and facilitate movement of peaceful citizens.
“For years, terrorists were freely roaming across the border but today, 90 percent of the frontier is difficult to cross from the Pakistani side because of strict measures we are putting in place,” Ghafoor said.
Other support for Pakistan
Officials in Islamabad have shown concern about possible U.S. military and economic sanctions in the Trump administration's new Afghan policy, citing years of dependence on American military hardware and the U.S. being a major trade partner.
They do not, however, anticipate a "rupture" in bilateral ties as Pakistan's ground lines of communication and airspace continue to play a crucial rule in sending supplies to thousands of American and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Observers say Pakistan’s deepening relations with traditional ally, China, and emerging alliance with Russia have apparently emboldened Islamabad to say “enough is enough” to U.S. pressure tactics.
On Monday, the Chinese special envoy on Afghan Affairs, Deng Xijun, during his visit to Islamabad, reaffirmed Beijing’s “continuing and firm” support to efforts Pakistan is making for peace and stability in Afghanistan, officials said.
“The Chinese special envoy lauded Pakistan’s contribution and sacrifices made in the fight against terrorism," said a Pakistani Foreign Ministry statement.