–Says Afghan political situation does not merit US withdrawal
Cross-border terrorism is the greatest threat to regional peace and stability and also leads to escalating tensions between Pakistan and India, said United States Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander General Joseph Votel on Friday.
In a briefing to the US Senate Armed Services Committee on Friday, the CENTCOM chief said that cross-border terrorism from militants based in Afghanistan is harmful to Afghan stability and is a threat to peace been Pakistan and India.
He also said that violent extremist organizations (VEOs) were behind instability and tensions along the Pak-Afghan border.
Appreciating Islamabad’s efforts for regional peace, the US general said that Pakistan has taken “positive steps to assist Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in support of Afghanistan reconciliation by facilitating talks with the Taliban”.
However, he also spoke of the US requisite for more “concrete or irreversible steps such as arresting or expelling Taliban leaders who do not cooperate with reconciliation efforts”.
“If Pakistan plays a positive role in achieving a settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan, the US will have opportunity and motive to help Pakistan fulfil that role, as peace in the region is the most important mutual priority for the US and Pakistan,” he added.
The top US commander in the region also said that while the suspension of US security assistance funds to Pakistan remain in place, some continuing US-Pakistan military cooperation activities have demonstrated “the importance of military cooperation, despite challenges in the bilateral relationship”.
“Pakistan presents the US with challenges and opportunities in the execution of our South Asia Strategy. As a state possessing nuclear weapons that sits at the nexus of Russian, Chinese, Indian, Iranian and US geopolitical interests, Pakistan will always be a country of importance to the US,” said General Votel.
“Our posture with Pakistan involves supporting our colleagues at the Department of State as they pursue a diplomatic solution with Islamabad to end the conflict in Afghanistan while ensuring that Pakistan’s equities are acknowledged and addressed in any future agreement,” he added.
The US general also spoke on Beijing’s rising influence in South Asia and highlighted Pakistan’s role in the process. “China is already partnering with Pakistan for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as a central piece of China’s One Belt – One Road initiative. China financed and gained access to the Gwadar Port enabling access to the Arabian Sea,” he said.
“For China, economic power is the primary tool, and while many One Belt – One Road projects do not pose direct threats to US national interests, burgeoning Chinese economic power could support and mask longer-term military and political objectives,” he added.
General Votel stated that Central and South Asia cooperation between Washington and Beijing “offers opportunities for peaceful dialogue and a chance for the US to balance China’s economic rise and reinforce its commitment to global norms for the benefit all”.
‘AFGHAN POLITICAL SITUATION DOES NOT MERIT US WITHDRAWAL’:
He said that US forces have not yet been ordered to pull out of Afghanistan despite US President Donald Trump’s plan to end involvement there.
“We have not been directed to withdraw. There are no orders to withdraw anything,” he said. “The political conditions of where we are in the reconciliation right now do not merit withdrawal,” he added.
After 17 years, Trump wants to end US involvement in Afghanistan, where 14,000 American troops are still deployed. But Votel said that despite some positive signs in talks between the United States and the Taliban forces, there has still not been enough progress. One ongoing problem, he noted, is that the Taliban are still unwilling to negotiate directly with the Afghan government. In addition, Afghan government troops are not yet ready to stand on their own, he said.
He said, “These decisions have to be based more on conditions than specific times and must pivot off political progress.”
“My advice is that any decision to reduce forces in Afghanistan should be done in full consultation with our coalition partners and of course the government of Afghanistan,” he added.
“The Afghan forces are dependent on the coalition support we provide for them,” he concluded.