ISLAMABAD - A U.S. congressional delegation has visited a troubled region of Pakistan and called on both Islamabad and Washington to continue working closely to combat regional terrorism and to promote peace and stability in neighboring Afghanistan. The delegation, led by Senator John McCain, includes fellow senators Lindsey Graham, Elizabeth Warren, David Perdue and Sheldon Whitehouse. The visit comes as the Trump administration is expected to unveil a new Afghan strategy later this month.
The five-member bipartisan delegation Monday was flown by Pakistan's military to the semi-autonomous South Waziristan tribal region bordering Afghanistan. South Waziristan and the neighboring North Waziristan district - part of what is known as the Federally Administered Tribal Area or FATA - have for years harbored local and foreign militants blamed for terrorist attacks in Pakistan and across the border in Afghanistan. The lawmakers' trip comes as Islamabad faces allegations that sanctuaries in Pakistan are giving Taliban-linked groups a venue to plot attacks in Afghanistan.
Before traveling to Waziristan, the senators met in Islamabad with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and top military officials. Sharif said a “strong partnership” between his country, the United States and Afghanistan is a ”prerequisite" for achieving sustainable peace in Afghanistan. The Pakistani prime minister reaffirmed his country’s commitment to supporting all efforts aimed at restoring lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan, according to an official statement issued after the meeting. Sharif said concerted efforts were needed for a politically negotiated settlement under an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process.
The Pakistani military's alleged ties to the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani terrorist network have long been at the center of tensions with the United States. The accusations have also strained ties between Islamabad and Kabul, even as Pakistani officials reject the charges. In recent years, the Pakistani military has conducted major counterinsurgency operations and officials say North and South Waziristan have been cleared of militants, with the exception of a few isolated pockets. The visiting U.S. lawmakers, however, said Pakistani troops have made progress in dismantling terrorist infrastructure and restoring peace to South Waziristan.
“My colleagues from the United States Senate and I have had a very informative and important visit, understating the challenges, the successes and remaining challenges that require close coordination and assistance from us and with us," Senator McCain said. "We had talked about many issues, including the importance of Afghan-Pakistan cooperation in relationship on the border and we are confident that with the right cooperation and the right strategy, we can see success here in this very long struggle.”
The Pakistani army says the delegation received a briefing on security measures authorities are putting in place on the Afghan border, including fencing and enhanced surveillance, to deter terrorist infiltration. The U.S. senators were flown over the tribal district to view newly constructed forts and outposts and social development projects.
According to the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, the United States has given millions of dollars in financial assistance to Pakistan for some of the infrastructure projects to help in the rebuilding process. They included the Kurram Tangi dam project in North Waziristan, that will irrigate nearly 6,500 hectares of farmland, enough to benefit 100,000 people, and produce 18.4 megawatts of electricity. Washington has also provided funds for supporting law enforcement personnel in FATA and construction of more than 100 border outposts as well as defensive structures to support Pakistani counterterrorism operations.
After their visit, McCain and the rest of the delegation flew to Afghanistan, where they will spend time with U.S. troops for the U.S. Independence Day holiday on July 4 and meet with Afghan leaders.