WASHINGTON / NEW YORK: Pakistan doesn’t have the option of “walking away from” Afghanistan, the way the US may end up doing, Ambassador Sherry Rehman told a meeting that saw her and senior Obama aides trading barbs over the Afghan conflict.
At a meeting in Aspen, Colorado, Obama officials again accused Pakistan of not doing enough to combat terrorism while the Pakistani envoy insisted that her country was doing all it could but was not getting credit for its sacrifices.
Although the United States and Pakistan agreed recently to renew efforts to rebuild their troubled relationship, the discussion — posted live on the internet — made it amply clear that they still disagreed on all major issues. The discussion precedes a key meeting between US and Pakistani spy chiefs in Washington on Aug 2 in which Pakistan is expected to renew its demands for ending drone strikes and may seek US help to stop cross-border attacks from Afghanistan.
But senior US officials disagreed with Pakistan on both the issues.
“These are critical masses of people that come in; this is not just potshots,” said Ms Rehman while explaining Islamabad’s position on cross-border attacks by Pakistani Taliban groups.
“They come in large numbers, with sophisticated weapons.”
Speaking through a video link from Washington, she said that on 52 different occasions during the last eight months Pakistan had provided to American and Nato commanders in Afghanistan the locations from which the militants were attacking, to no avail.
President Obama’s top adviser on the Afghan conflict Douglas E. Lute, however, rejected her claim. Mr Lute, a retired three-star general, insisted that cross-border infiltrations into Pakistan were less serious than the attacks carried out by the Afghan Taliban from their bases inside Pakistan.
“There’s no comparison of the Pakistani Taliban’s relatively recent, small-in-scale presence inside Afghanistan…to the decades-long experience and relations between elements of the Pakistani government and the Afghan Taliban. So to compare these is simply, I think, unfair,” Mr Lute said.
Criticising the CIA’s drone strikes in Pakistan, Ms Rehman said it’s time for that sort of ‘robotic warfare’ to end. “The drone strikes now see diminishing returns,” she said, while acknowledging that up to this point they had helped kill dangerous militants. “We will be seeking an end to drone strikes and there will be no compromise on that.”
The drone strikes, she said, whipped up anti-American sentiment and “add to the pool of recruits we’re fighting against,” she said.
Ambassador Rehman pointed out that Pakistan’s old policy of seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan had changed and so had its attitude towards India.
“We are not hedging bets on the Taliban,” she said. But this change was not recognised in Washington nor was Pakistan’s sacrifices in the war against terror, said the ambassador.
Quoting IMF estimates, she said Pakistan had lost almost $78 billion during the conflict that started after the Sept 11, 2011, terrorist attacks in the US. “More than 42,000 Pakistani civilians and soldiers have been killed,” she said. “We are fighting every day and we are taking the hit.”
Pakistan, she said, had taken the responsibility for what happens inside its borders, “we are still paying the price and there should be some strategic sympathy.”
The ambassador noted that the US and Pakistan had experienced “an extraordinarily difficult period” after an American air strike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last November, but they were still staunch allies. Mr Lute agreed, saying that the countries shared the vital interests of defeating Al Qaeda and stabilising Afghanistan.
The CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft asked the ambassador if Dr Shakil Afridi’s punishment demonstrated that the Pakistanis “have more loyalty to Osama bin Laden than they do to the United States.”
“In a word, I’d call it outrageous,” said Lt-Gen Karl Eikenberry (retd), who served as US ambassador to Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011.
Ms Rehman rejected the US position, saying that Dr Afridi was convicted by a court in accordance with the country’s law.
“Dr Afridi was contracting with a foreign intelligence agency without any permission. He was contracting with militant groups who were beheading our soldiers,” she said. “He had no clue that he was engaged in a fight against or search for Osama bin Laden.”
His conviction demonstrated that “we are working according to a constitutional norm,” she said.
Ms Rehman referred to President Obama’s statement on the day Bin Laden was killed, noting that he too had acknowledged that this could not have been done without help and support the US had received from Pakistan.
She wrapped up her arguments by urging the Americans to recognise the changes happening in Pakistan. “This is a new Pakistan. Catch up, gentlemen,” she said.