ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - Russia and Pakistan plan to establish a commission on military cooperation to counter the Islamic State threat in the region, accusing the United States of downplaying the terrorist group's dangerous "proliferation" in Afghanistan.
"We have confirmed Russia's readiness to continue boosting Pakistan's counterterrorism capacity, which is in the entire region's interests," Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday in Moscow.
Speaking to reporters along with his Pakistani counterpart, Khawaja Asif, the Russian official said fighting terrorism is one of the priority areas of cooperation between the two countries. He said joint military exercises between Russian and Pakistani special forces, which began in 2016, will continue this year.
Lavrov raised Moscow's "very serious suspicions" about efforts the NATO-led coalition is undertaking in Afghanistan to curb the threat.
According to Russian and Pakistani data, he said, thousands of IS terrorists are present in northern and eastern Afghan border regions and they continue to grow in number. This is increasing the risk of the "terrorists' penetration" into Central Asia and Russia.
"But we are alarmed because unfortunately, U.S. military and NATO coalition in Afghanistan try to silence or deny these facts to give an impression that it [IS] is not a serious threat," noted Lavrov.
Russia and neighboring Iran are increasingly accusing the United States of being behind the rise of the Afghan branch of IS. They allege IS fighters fleeing Syria and Iraq are also finding refuge in the war-shattered country.
Lavrov said Moscow is also waiting for "clarifications" from the U.S.-led coalition about "flights of unmarked helicopters" to Afghan areas that are either controlled by insurgents or host militant bases.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Asif shared Lavrov's concerns about what he said is "unchecked proliferation of Daesh" in Afghanistan.
"But there is absolutely no acknowledgment, real acknowledgement, by Kabul and Washington of such a large presence of Daesh or the proliferation of Daesh in Afghanistan. … They are a threat to Central Asia, Pakistan, China and ultimately to Russian Federation. … So, this is something, which is very alarming," he said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
The number of IS terrorists, Asif said, has surpassed even some Taliban groups operating in Afghanistan because of the arrival of militants from the Middle East.
Washington vehemently rejects as "rumors" charges that it is supporting IS activities in Afghanistan, and maintains that sustained military operations in partnership with Afghan forces against the terrorist group have significantly degraded and reduced the terrorists in the country.
U.S. officials, in turn, denounce Moscow's overt ties with the Taliban, saying it gives legitimacy to the insurgency and undermines years of efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.
Afghan peace pledge
Lavrov and Asif also pledged to work closely to promote a peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan, alleging the U.S.-led military mission has failed to secure the country. They said illegal opium poppy production, which is directly feeding insecurity, has also increased "manyfold."
"There are monumental failures in Afghanistan and there is an effort to scapegoat Pakistan ... for these failures. We have rejected these baseless allegations. We cannot fight others' wars on our soil," said Asif.
He was referring to the Trump administration's accusations the Taliban and its allies are waging insurgency in Afghanistan from their sanctuaries in Pakistan and with covert support of its military. U.S. and Afghan officials have been demanding that Islamabad take "decisive" action against the militants.
Pakistani officials deny any links to insurgents and say security forces have uprooted all terrorist bases. They, in turn, allege militants who have fled counterterrorism operations have found refuge on the Afghan side of the long, porous border between the two countries and plot terrorist attacks against Pakistan.
Washington has suspended military aid to Pakistan and relations continue to deteriorate as U.S. officials maintain there is no evidence the country is taking action against insurgents on its soil, including those linked to the dreaded Haqqani network.
Pakistan's closeness with Russia and the cementing of traditionally strong ties with neighboring China stem from the growing U.S. pressure, say analysts.