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Rocky US-Pakistan Ties Scrutinized as Foreign Troops Set to Exit Afghanistan

FILE - A Pakistani soldier stands guard next to a fence along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan's Paktika province, in Angoor Adda, in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal agency, Oct. 18, 2017.
FILE - A Pakistani soldier stands guard next to a fence along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan's Paktika province, in Angoor Adda, in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal agency, Oct. 18, 2017.

Officials in Pakistan appear upset over U.S. military assessments warning of a possible resurgence of terrorism in the South Asian country after the withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan and calling into question Islamabad’s commitment to peace in the war-torn neighboring country.

Gen. Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia, shared the assessment in his congressional testimony this week in Washington. The CENTCOM chief also highlighted long-running U.S. complaints the Taliban continue to maintain their sanctuaries on Pakistani soil and direct insurgent attacks in Afghanistan from there.

McKenzie spoke a week after President Joe Biden announced the last remaining 3,000 or so U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan by September 11 to end what he said was America’s “forever war.”

NATO allies have promised to match the action and withdraw thousands of their forces, as well. Biden’s announcement is in line with a troop withdrawal agreement the U.S. negotiated with the Taliban a year ago.

The drawdown, due to start May 1, has raised fears of intensification in the war between Afghan government forces and the Taliban insurgency in the conflict-torn nation, which shares about 2,600-kilometers of border with Pakistan, because the two adversaries have failed to reach a peace deal after months of talks.

“I think the country that’s going to be the most affected frankly is going to be Pakistan because of the possibility of unconstrained refugee flow because of the possibility of renewed terrorist attacks in Pakistan that could ramp up as a result of this,” McKenzie told lawmakers Tuesday while articulating the possible impact on neighboring countries after U.S. troops complete their Afghan exit.

In testimony Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the general noted that Islamabad was interested in a stable Afghanistan, but he cautioned it’s going to be “very difficult” for that stability to remain post-U.S. troop withdrawal.

“I think Pakistan will be very concerned by that. I would say frankly that it’s a situation they have not been terribly helpful on over the last 20 years so that’s unfortunate for them that some of this is now gone come back home in a way that they perhaps did not anticipate,” McKenzie said.

FILE - Marine General Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, speaks with U.S. troops while visiting Forward Operating Base Fenty in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, Sept. 9, 2019.
FILE - Marine General Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, speaks with U.S. troops while visiting Forward Operating Base Fenty in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, Sept. 9, 2019.

A senior Pakistani official who deals with national security matters has dismissed the U.S. charges, saying his country in the last three years has made all possible efforts to facilitate the Washington-led efforts to promote peace and reconciliation between Kabul and the Taliban.

The official, speaking to VOA on condition of anonymity, urged U.S. officials to desist from “starting a new blame game” at a time when Afghans need support from all sides to find peace for their turmoil-hit nation.

“It will be extremely unfortunate to blame Pakistan for continued disagreements among Afghan stakeholders and the inability of the United States to appreciate Pakistan’s unqualified, relentless efforts for peace and stability in Afghanistan,” said the official who is not authorized to speak to the media.

Despite its long-running skepticism, Washington credits Islamabad with facilitating talks between U.S. and Taliban interlocutors that culminated in the signing of the February 2020 peace agreement between the two adversaries.

Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Zahid Hafeez Chaudhri, when asked for his reaction to McKenzie’s remarks, insisted his country facilitated “in good faith” the U.S.-Taliban peace process.

“It is out of our legitimate security concerns and well wishes for the safety and security of Afghan people that we call for an orderly and responsible withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan leaving no security vacuum that could be exploited by spoilers,” Chaudhri told VOA.

"It is, therefore, important that the withdrawal coincides with the progress in the peace process.”

Chaudhri went on to underscore that Islamabad’s “historic and longstanding” relations with Washington have “always served mutual interests” of both countries.

The Biden administration has also attempted to brush aside suggestions of strains in relations with Pakistan.

“The United States looks forward to working together with Pakistan on a range of issues including addressing the climate crisis through improving access to energy, promoting efficient agricultural practices and supporting innovative climate adaptation measures all while growing our economies in sustainable ways,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA.

Micheal Kugelman, deputy Asia program director at the Washington-based Wilson Center, said McKenzie’s comments “don’t portend well” for U.S.-Pakistan relations.

“He appears to acknowledge that the withdrawal will impact Pakistan’s stability deleteriously but doesn’t give any indication that the U.S. would be prepared to work with Pakistan to help reduce its risks of destabilization,” Kugelman told VOA.

Senator Mushahid Hussain, the chairman of foreign affairs committee of the upper house of the Pakistani parliament, criticized McKenzie’s remarks as “confusing” and an attempt to blame Pakistan for U.S. military failures in Afghanistan.

“The only clarity seems to be a readiness to scapegoat Pakistan, if and when things go wrong in Afghanistan, [convenient way of passing the buck!]. Accepting defeat for any army isn’t always easy, especially the American military in yet another land war in Asia. So, the easy way out: blame Pakistan!,” Hussain asserted.

Pakistan’s military bases and ground and air lines of communication played a crucial role in facilitating and sustaining the U.S.-led military invasion of landlocked Afghanistan 20 years ago.

The punitive military action was launched to oust the Taliban from power days after the deadly September 11, 2001 strikes on America that were plotted by al-Qaida leaders from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan at the time.

Pakistan has long retaken control of its bases from the U.S. military, but the country’s airspace and land routes are still being used to ferry non-lethal military supplies for international forces across the Afghan border.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and his military leadership have vowed repeatedly in recent months that their country will not participate in any future U.S. military action and only play the role of a “peacemaker,” if required.

McKenzie told lawmakers during his testimony the U.S. is engaged in “a significant” diplomatic effort to determine where it would base a counterterrorism force in the region to deter terrorist groups after all American troops leave the country. However, no such understanding currently exists with any of Afghanistan’s neighbors for housing the proposed anti-terrorism forces, the general said.

“This may also be meant to signal to Pakistan that if the U.S. is to help Pakistan with its security needs, Islamabad will need to offer something in return, such as the use of Pakistani military bases to house U.S. counterterrorism forces focused on terror threats in Afghanistan that threaten the U.S. and Pakistan alike,” said Kugelman while referring to McKenzie’s criticism of Islamabad.

Chaudhri called for a meaningful engagement of the international community for promoting reconstruction and economic development in the post-conflict Afghanistan for ensuring sustainable peace and stability.

Pakistan still hosts around three million Afghan refugees who have fled four decades of civil war, persecution and poverty. Chaudhri called stressed the need for arranging a time-bound and well-resourced plan for repatriating the displaced population that Pakistani officials maintain has served as a hiding place for insurgents.

VOA's Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.