–Lt Gen Kenneth McKenzie says Pakistan must influence Afghan Taliban leadership to come to negotiation table
WASHINGTON: Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, the incoming chief of US Central Command, said that he would make Pakistan a priority engagement after he takes command of the strategic command theatre.
In a written response to a set of advance policy questions to US Senate Armed Services Committee, the Marine Corps general termed the military-to-military relationship between the two countries strong and important strategically, given “that Pakistan is a nuclear power that sits at the nexus of Russian, Chinese, Indian and American geopolitical interests”. McKenzie said that previous frustration between Washington and Islamabad has centred around instability in Afghanistan.
On Monday, US President Donald Trump wrote a letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan seeking Islamabad’s help in facilitating a negotiated settlement of the lingering conflict in Afghanistan.
The US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation at the Department of State Zalmay Khalilzad made a trip to Pakistan this week to reiterate President Trump’s desire to seek the country’s cooperation for peace and stability in Afghanistan. In a meeting with Khalilzad, PM Khan said that he personally wished for regional peace and that Trump’s letter urging Pakistan to back the peace process was welcomed.
McKenzie said, “Stability in the South Asia region remains the most important mutual strategic interest for both the US and Pakistan, and I think we must continue to engage with Pakistani leadership to realise how we can achieve this mutual interest”.
When asked what he considers the major challenge to the bilateral strategic relationship, the senior US military official said that Pakistan must influence Taliban leadership to come to the negotiation table and acknowledged that this was not a major policy focus for Pakistan but a stable Afghanistan was.
He said that upon confirmation, Centcom would continue to support Trump’s South Asia strategy. He assured that under his command, Centcom would continue to work “towards a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Afghanistan which includes ensuring that Islamabad’s equities are acknowledged in any future agreement”. 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.”
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.”
“Taking concrete steps that deny VEO safe havens in Pakistan, as well as VEO freedom of movement from Pakistan to Afghanistan, remain 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.”
Reacting to Pentagon’s decision to withhold $50 million of the Coalition Support Fund (CSF) in July, Ambassador Aizaz Chaudhry emphasised that the funds in questions were a reimbursement of the expenses incurred by Pakistan towards achieving “our common objectives in the fight against terrorism” and were not assistance.
McKenzie confirmed this and said significant that security assistance provided by the US since 2001 included “funds to reimburse Pakistan for the costs associated with military operations conducted by Pakistan along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border”.
Reiterating Washington’s stance, the Marine general also claimed Pakistan was using the Afghan Taliban as a hedge against Indian influence in Afghanistan and that if confirmed, he would support Khalilzad’s efforts.