WASHINGTON: The US intelligence community, in a rare acknowledgement of Pakistan’s concerns, has informed Congress that Islamabad does not want heavy Indian influence in Afghanistan and will likely turn to China to offset New Delhi’s sway on its western borders.
The discussion on Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan was part of a recent congressional hearing on the Afghan war and is linked to ageneral debate in Washington on the issue. The Trump administration is finalising a new policy for Afghanistan and the ongoing consultations in the White House have generated much interest in the US media and think tanks.
Earlier this week, a Republican congressman, Adam Kinzinger, suggested resuming air strikes on alleged terrorist targets in Pakistan, and observers in Washington said the Trump administration might do so if terrorists targeted US military personnel and installations in Afghanistan.
During a recent hearing on Afghanistan at the Senate Armed Services Committee, US intelligence chiefs gave a candid assessment of the situation in the war-torn country. And a transcript, released this weekend, showed that much of the debate focused on Pakistan.
Official tells Congress Taliban will continue to make gains
“Pakistan is concerned about international isolation and sees its position through the prism of India’s rising international status, including India’s expanded foreign outreach and deepening ties to the United States,” said Dan Coats, who, as National Intelligence director, leads a team of more than a dozen spy agencies, including the CIA and FBI. “Pakistan will likely turn to China to offset its isolation, empowering a relationship that will help Beijing to project influence in the Indian Ocean,” he added.
Director Coats claimed that Islamabad had failed to curb militants and terrorists in Pakistan and because of this failure, “these groups will present a sustained threat to the US interests in the region and continue to plan and conduct attacks in India and Afghanistan”.
“Pakistan views Afghanistan — or desires for Afghanistan some of the same things we want: a safe, secure, stable Afghanistan. One addition — one that does not have heavy Indian influence in Afghanistan,” said Defence Intelligence director Lt Gen Vincent Stewart.
“They view all of the challenges through the lens of an Indian threat to the state of Pakistan. So they hold in reserve terrorist organisations… so that — if Afghanistan leans towards India, they will no longer be supportive of an idea of a stable and secure Afghanistan that could undermine Pakistan interests,” the general added.
Director Coats also told the Senate committee that despite increased military efforts to defeat them, the Taliban militants had and would continue to make gains, especially in rural areas.
“Afghan security forces’ performance will probably worsen due to a combination of Taliban operations, combat casualties, desertions, poor logistics support and weak leadership,” he warned.
Senator Joni Kay Ernst, an Illinois Republican, asked the intelligence chiefs to spell out the measures that the United States would like Afghanistan’s neighbours to take to help stabilise the region.
“I think certainly an evaluation of how we work with Pakistan to address the situation of the harbouring of terrorist groups would be essential to a strategy that affects Afghanistan,” Mr Coats replied.
“Because that is potentially a very disrupting situation, putting our own troops at risk and undermining the strategy of dealing with the Taliban and local groups that are trying to undermine the (Afghan) government. So it’s a very clear link that I think would have to be addressed in conjunction with whatever’s done in Afghanistan.”
“Besides more troops, which I anticipate might be part of the plan that we see, do we need to implement a different strategy on the ground in Afghanistan?” Senator Ernst asked Gen Stewart.
“We’ve got to get a couple of things. One, very clear that Afghanistan’s security and stability is in the interest of all of the parties in the region and does not pose a risk to Pakistan,” the general replied.
“We’ve got to convince Pakistan that if they’re harbouring any of the Haqqani network members that it is not in their interest to continue to host Haqqani network.”
The general also urged the Trump administration to work with Afghanistan’s neighbours to go after the 20 terrorist organisations that were still active in the region. “They undermine not just Afghanistan, not just Pakistan, but all of the region,” he added.
Gen Stewart also suggested “pushing” Pakistan to do more against the Haqqani network and urged US policymakers to “separate the Taliban from the Pashtun”, because Pakistan wanted a Pashtun-dominated Afghanistan.
“So we’ve got to get the conversation going again with Pakistan about their role in not harbouring any of these terrorists, helping to stabilise Afghanistan and I think maybe we’ll have some progress,” he said.
Gen Stewart said he believed Pakistan still had some influence in bringing Taliban to the table. “So we’ve got to get them to think about reconciliation, that the status quo is not in their best interest,” he said.
“Do you think that we can frame the intelligence in a way that would state that we need Pakistan to be a good friend to not only Afghanistan and the United States, in order for the United States to be a good friend to Pakistan?” Senator Ernst asked. “I am hoping to do just that in the weeks ahead, ma’am,” the general replied, referring to his role in making the new policy for Afghanistan.