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The Biden administration sees Pakistan as an “essential partner” in any peace process in Afghanistan and believes that “continuing to build relationships with Pakistan’s military will provide openings for the United States and Pakistan to cooperate on key issues,” says its nominated defence chief Gen Lloyd J Austin.
Gen Austin made these remarks during his confirmation hearing for the post of secretary of defence before the United States Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
“Pakistan is an essential partner in any peace process in Afghanistan,” Austin, a former head of the US Central Command, told the committee. “If confirmed, I will encourage a regional approach that garners support from neighbours like Pakistan, while also deterring regional actors, from serving as spoilers to the Afghanistan peace process.”
When asked what changes he would recommend to US relations with Pakistan as the new defence chief, Gen Austin said: “I will focus on our shared interests which include training future Pakistan military leaders through the use of International Military Education and Training funds. Pakistan will play an important role in any political settlement in Afghanistan. We also need to work with Pakistan to defeat al Qaeda and the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) and to enhance regional stability.”
Asked if he has perceived any change in Pakistan’s cooperation with the US since the Trump administration’s decision in 2018 to withhold security assistance, Gen Austin said: “I understand Pakistan has taken constructive steps to meet US requests in support of the Afghanistan peace process. Pakistan has also taken steps against anti-Indian groups, such as Lashkar-i-Taiba and Jaish-i-Mohammad, although this progress is incomplete.”
The general, however, acknowledged that “many factors in addition to the security assistance suspension may impact Pakistan’s cooperation, including Afghanistan negotiations and the dangerous escalation following the Pulwama terrorist attack.”
“Pakistan is a sovereign country,” he said when asked what tools and options the US had to influence Pakistan.
“I will press Pakistan to prevent its territory from being used as a sanctuary for militants and violent extremist organisations. Continuing to build relationships with Pakistan’s military will provide openings for the United States and Pakistan to cooperate on key issues.”
Peace deal review
Meanwhile, Tony Blinken, who appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for his confirmation hearing for the post of secretary of state, said he wanted to review the US-Taliban peace deal but clarified that the new administration would also continue the peace process started by the Trump administration.
Blinken, who is a former State Department official, would undertake a review of the peace deal because like the outgoing Trump administration, which negotiated the deal, the new US rulers also want to end the almost 20-year long war in Afghanistan.
“We want to end this so-called forever war,” he insisted. “We want to bring our forces home. We want to retain some capacity to deal with any resurgence of terrorism, which is what brought us there in the first place,” Blinken said. “We have to look carefully at what has actually been negotiated. I haven’t been privy to it yet.”
America’s President-elect Joe Biden has stated that while he would reduce the number of combat troops in Afghanistan, he would not withdraw US military presence.
Last year, during a debate between Democratic presidential candidates, Biden had said: “We can prevent the United States from being the victim of terror coming out of Afghanistan by providing for bases — insist the Pakistanis provide bases for us to air lift from and to move against what we know.”
In his hearing on Tuesday, Blinken also promised to consider the rights of Afghan women and girls whose freedoms were severely curtailed during the Taliban regime.
“I don’t believe that any outcome that they might achieve,” Blinken said of nascent talks between Taliban and the Kabul government, “is sustainable without protecting the gains that have been made by women and girls in Afghanistan over the last 20 years.”
Relations with India
The Biden administration, Blinken said, would also like to continue a close relationship with India.
“India has been a bipartisan success story of our successive administrations. It started towards the end of the Clinton administration,” he said.
“During the Obama administration, we deepened cooperation on defence procurement and information sharing. The Trump administration carried that forward including its concept of Indo-Pacific and to make sure we were working with India so that no country in the region, including China, could challenge its sovereignty.”
The US, he said, would also continue to work with India on concerns that the two countries share about terrorism.
“There are many ways we can deepen that cooperation that successive administrations have put us on,” Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.