ISLAMABAD - Pakistan has vowed to stay engaged with the United States to help fight terrorism in neighboring Afghanistan, but said the war “cannot be won by excluding or confronting” Islamabad.
Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif made the remark Thursday at the end of a three-day conference of Pakistani ambassadors to key world capitals for formulating a comprehensive response to the new U.S. policy on Afghanistan.
U.S. President Donald Trump criticized Pakistan when he announced his long-awaited Afghan war policy last month. He accused Islamabad of harboring terrorists linked to the Taliban and Haqqani network, which are undermining U.S.-led efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and staging attacks on American forces.
The charges have strained an already fragile relationship between Islamabad and Washington.
“We want to stay engaged with the United States. There is absolutely no doubt about it ... But this relationship will be driven by the interest of Pakistan. We want to have a relationship based on mutual respect,” Foreign Minister Asif told reporters after the meeting.
He again rejected allegations his country is sheltering terrorists who are plotting deadly attacks in Afghanistan. Asif recounted Pakistan has lost thousands of its citizens, including security forces, and suffered massive economic losses while fighting terrorism.
“I think people sitting in Washington have no comprehension of that ... I think they are oblivious, if not completely, at least partially oblivious of what actually is happening in this region,” the foreign minister said.
Asif urged the U.S. to respect Pakistan’s sacrifices in the fight against terrorism and warned that “scapegoating” his country for “failures” of international forces to secure Afghanistan will be counterproductive.
“They [the U.S.] should acknowledge Pakistan’s counterterrorism gains and make use of our experience to win this war on terrorism because it can’t be won by excluding or confronting Pakistan,” the foreign minister asserted.
Trump singled out Pakistan for not doing enough against militant groups operating on its soil but did not outline how he planned to pressure the country to move against the alleged terrorist sanctuaries on its soil.
US put on notice
U.S. media has reported a range of possible punitive measures under consideration, such as increasing diplomatic and economic pressure, and intensifying and expanding anti-terrorism drone strikes inside Pakistan. Asif warned against any coercive U.S. action.
“We will defend our territorial integrity and we will not compromise our territorial integrity or our national dignity at any cost. And we expect from the U.S. to respect that,” the foreign minister warned.
He admitted that eliminating militancy from the entire Pakistani society will take time.
“You have to change an entire culture created to fight the Afghan jihad in the 80s . You needed a state of mind to wage the jihad, so you deliberately created that state of mind through a state-sponsored program. Now you are trying to reverse it,” Asif said. It takes time, he said, to “get rid of this baggage.”
The Pakistani minister was referring to the U.S.-backed Afghan insurgency against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The American CIA in collaboration with Pakistan’s spy agency, Inter- Services Intelligence or ISI, created, funded, trained and armed Afghans as well as volunteers from across the Muslim world to fight Soviet occupation forces, admitted Hillary Clinton while testifying as U.S. Secretary of State during a congressional hearing in April, 2009.
ISI later used its ties with Afghan factions to try to influence affairs in Kabul during the civil war of the 1990s that gripped Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal.
The Pakistani spy agency also allegedly used some of the home-grown militants to fuel a Muslim separatist insurgency in India-controlled portions of the divided Kashmir region.
The backing from the powerful military establishment emboldened and enabled the militant groups to penetrate and extend influence in the mainstream Pakistani society, which has over the years become a major domestic security challenge and a source of spreading religious extremism, critics say.
Afghans and U.S. officials have been skeptical about whether ISI would cut its covert ties with the Taliban and Haqqanis because Islamabad uses them to counter growing influence of rival India in Afghanistan.
Foreign Minister Asif left for China, Pakistan’s staunch ally, shortly after addressing reporters, saying his talks with Chinese officials will focus on the situation in the aftermath of Trump’s August policy announcement. Asif is scheduled to also travel to Russia, Iran and Turkey later this month before undertaking a crucial visit to Washington.