WASHINGTON, Aug 1: Days after Pakistan claimed that it had moved away from the old concept of ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan, the United States recognised the change and promised a long-term engagement with the country to encourage the new policy.
“This has been a doctrine that the Pakistanis, over the years, have talked about strategic depth. And one of the idea as is that Afghanistan represents strategic depth in a potential conflict with India,” US ambassador-designate to Pakistan Richard Olson told his confirmation hearing on Tuesday afternoon.
“My sense is that the Pakistani military and the Pakistani government have moved away from that,” he added.
Ambassador Sherry Rehman told a briefing in Aspen, Colorado, earlier this week that “Pakistan’s old policy of seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan has changed and so has its attitude towards India”.
And that’s why Pakistan was no longer “hedging bets on the Taliban”, said the Pakistani envoy to the US, complaining that this change was not recognised in Washington.
But Ambassador Olson’s statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee indicated that the US had recognised this change and was encouraging Pakistan to continue the new policy.
Mr Olson, who until recently served as a senior diplomat in Kabul, cited Pakistani actions as well as the avowed policy statements by its leaders to support his acknowledgment.
“Foreign Minister (Hina Rabbani) Khar has made some public comments about moving away from the doctrine of strategic depth,” noted the US diplomat, adding that the Pakistani military also had taken practical steps for implementing this change in policy.
“Chief of the Army Staff Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has redeployed his forces internally to deal with the internal threat, and heavily towards the border (with Afghanistan) to deal with the threats emanating from that region,” he said.
“So, I think there is a basis at a strategic level for some further discussion with the Pakistanis. I think these are frankly positive developments that we would like to encourage, as Pakistan looks to its strategic position.”
Discussions with Pakistan on issues like this, he added, should “take place against the context of some predictability in the overall (US-Pakistan) relationship”.
Senator Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, raised the issue in the hearing, seeking Ambassador Olson’s views on Pakistan’s policy of seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan.
“They're concerned about India not having any influence there because they're such a narrow country,” said the Senator.
“They'd rather it be destabilised, would they not, than India have any influence there?” he asked.
In his written statement to the committee, Ambassador Olson emphasised the need to stay engaged with Pakistan.
“I don’t have to tell you how important Pakistan is to the United States. The United States has a clear interest in supporting a stable, sovereign, and democratic Pakistan at peace with itself and its neighbours,” he said.
Mr Olson noted that continued engagement with Pakistan was necessary to pursue the strategic defeat of Al Qaeda, to promote peace and stability in Afghanistan, to encourage regional stability, and to support political and economic stability in Pakistan.
“Instability in Pakistan would undermine our goals in the region,” he warned.
Mr Olson noted that while Pakistan faced the daunting task of combating extremists that had killed almost 30,000 Pakistani soldiers and citizens, “but Pakistan is also a country with great potential, vast natural resources, and talented, resilient people”.
Mr Olson also said he would hope to bring to the relationship some sense that Washington wanted to replace a transitional relationship with long-term ties.
Economic assistance for Pakistan, he said, could help convince the Pakistanis that the US wanted a long-term relationship with them.
“Pakistan faces many challenges. It is located in a challenging region, continues to face economic stagnation, and is home to a burgeoning population of nearly 200 million people, the majority of whom are under 25,” he noted.
“Certainly, being ambassador to Pakistan, a country that's so large and so vexed with so many problems has got to be a really significant challenge,” observed James B. Cunningham, the US ambassador-designate for Afghanistan.
Senator John Kerry, who chaired the hearing, also referred to Ambassador Sherry Rehman’s efforts for stabilising bilateral ties, recognising her efforts in the reopening of Nato supply lines to Afghanistan.