Two key elements of an Afghan peace deal — Pakistan’s concerns over India’s growing influence in Afghanistan and what the US could do to allay those concerns — were both highlighted at a congressional hearing this week.
Lt Gen Kenneth McKenzie, the next chief of the US Central Command (Centcom), raised both points in a written response to the US Senate Armed Services Committee after his confirmation hearing the other day.
He also said that as Centcom chief, he “will make Pakistan a priority engagement”.
Says as Centcom chief he will make Islamabad a priority engagement
“At this time, Pakistan does not appear to be using the full extent of its influence to encourage the Taliban to come to the table,” he wrote in a response posted on the committee’s website on Wednesday.
“We continue to see the Taliban being utilised as a hedge against India rather than as part of a stable, reconciled Afghanistan,” he added.
Gen McKenzie acknowledged that Pakistan “has national interests it wants addressed in any future political settlement in the region, including a politically stable Afghanistan”.
He said that under his command, US Centcom would continue to support efforts “towards a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Afghanistan which includes ensuring that Islamabad’s equities are acknowledged in any future agreement”.
The US general said that stability in South Asia was “the most important mutual strategic interest” for both the US and Pakistan, and “we must continue to engage with Pakistani leadership to realise how we can achieve this mutual interest”.
Gen McKenzie said Pakistan was an essential element in long-term stability in Afghanistan and could play a key role in facilitating talks between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan.
The general was asked to give his assessment of the strategic relationship between the United States and Pakistan as well as to outline areas of shared strategic interest between the two countries.
Gen McKenzie replied: “The US and Pakistan military-to-military relationship is strong. We share an important strategic relationship given that Pakistan is a nuclear power that sits at the nexus of Russian, Chinese, Indian and American geopolitical interests. However, Pakistan’s action or inaction, as it relates to stability in Afghanistan, has often led to frustration between our governments and militaries.”
In reply to a question about the major challenges in US-Pakistan relationship, he said: “Despite Pakistan’s positive rhetoric in support of the South Asia Strategy, violent extremist organisations (VEOs) operate along its border with Afghanistan.
“While Pakistan has conducted some operations against VEOs in Pakistan, they must continue to expand these operations and remain aggressively engaged.
“Taking concrete steps that deny VEO safe havens in Pakistan, as well as VEO freedom of movement from Pakistan to Afghanistan, remains an important task that Pakistan needs to fulfil. Pakistan must leverage their influence over Taliban leadership to help compel them to come to the table for reconciliation negotiations.
“It is important to remember that we are asking Pakistan to focus a significant fraction of their national power away from what they perceive to be an existential threat.”
Gen McKenzie was asked what changes he would recommend to improve US relations with Pakistan, particularly in terms of military-to-military relations.
The general said Centcom continues to support the US president’s South Asia Strategy and remains committed to holding Pakistan accountable for the commitments they have made to support US efforts in finding a negotiated settlement to the Afghanistan conflict.
As for any policy changes, he added, Centcom will continue to provide coordinating support and military advice to the president and the Secretaries of Defence and State for any changes they are considering regarding US-Pakistan military-to-military relations. Since 2001, the United States has provided significant security assistance to Pakistan, including funds for reimbursement for the costs associated with military operations along the Afghan border.
The committee sought Gen McKenzie’s opinion about Pakistan’s role in helping to reconcile the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan.
“Pakistan is an essential element in long-term stability in Afghanistan. Pakistan could play a key role in facilitating talks between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan, and I would welcome that development,” the general said.