WASHINGTON, Nov 23: The US success in Afghanistan depends on having a Pakistan that is willing to confront terrorists, says US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta.
In a related report, a US think-tank urges the Obama administration to scale back its relationship with Pakistan in its second term, while maintaining a long-term tie with the country.
During the Thanksgiving weekend, the Pentagon released the transcript of Secretary Panetta’s presentation at the Centre for a New American Security, Washington, showing the US defence establishment wishes to rebuild its ties with Pakistan.
Mr Panetta’s written speech was reported earlier, but the transcript also includes the remarks he made while replying to questions raised by the audience.
“Realistically, what chance will the US strategy have to succeed in 2014 if more of the safe havens aren’t dealt with more stridently than they’ve been to date?” he was asked.
“Look, in many ways the success in Afghanistan is dependent on having a Pakistan that is willing to confront terrorism on their side of the border and prevent safe havens,” Mr Panetta replied.
The US defence secretary explained that right now the US was focusing on developing a defence force in Afghanistan that’s able to provide security and can establish operational capability to confront threats on the Afghan side of the border. Having such a force, he said, was extremely important to the future of Afghanistan.
But there were two other factors that will determine whether the United States succeeds in achieving its objectives in Afghanistan, Mr Panetta added. “Number one, we have to have an Afghanistan that can govern itself, that can move away from corruption, that can, in fact, have the capability to provide the kind of governance that you need in order to be able to truly secure that country and govern that country for the future,” he said.
“The other is Pakistan because of the safe havens in Pakistan. And the ability of terrorist groups to move across that border and to attack in Afghanistan and, obviously, the challenge that that represents.”
The US forces, he said, can take on the terrorists as they cross the border and have been doing so. “But the problem is that when they move back and escape into a safe haven, it makes it very difficult to complete the job,” Mr Panetta warned.
“So in order to really have a secure Afghanistan, ultimately Pakistan is going to have to take responsibility for taking on these terrorists and eliminating the safe havens.”
Mr Panetta said the US intended to put Afghans in the lead throughout the country for security in mid-2013 and by the end of 2014; they would ultimately have full responsibility for security. But he warned that this should not be interpreted as America’s willingness to abandon Afghanistan.
“After 2014, the United States has made clear through a strategic partnership agreement, that we will maintain an enduring presence, and a long-term commitment to Afghan security,” he said, noting that Nato also made a similar commitment to a post-2014 Afghanistan at the Chicago summit in May.
“All of this sends a very simple, and a very powerful message, to Al Qaeda, to the Taliban, and to the violent extremist groups who want to regain a safe haven in Afghanistan: we are not going anywhere,” said the US defence secretary. “Our commitment to Afghanistan is long-term, and you cannot wait us out.”
Mr Panetta said it was important to send this signal because Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other associated forces under pressure in Pakistan, continued to view the rugged terrain of north-eastern Afghanistan, especially Kunar and Nuristan provinces, as a viable safe haven.
“A relentless and effective counter-terrorism effort, conducted by our Special Operations Forces this year, made clear that we will not allow them to regain that sanctuary,” he said.
In a policy brief, ‘Salvaging a Troubled Marriage: Lessons for US-Pakistan Relations’, Michael Kugelman of the Woodrow Wilson Centre, Washington, argued for a scaled back but long-term relationship with Pakistan.
“In refashioning US-Pakistan policy, policymakers should bear in mind three key lessons. First, neither side exerts much influence over the other; second, limited opportunities for cooperation with official Pakistan should be seized; and third, coercive diplomacy has little utility,” he wrote. Mr Kugelman also underlined the need for engaging Pakistan’s private sector and the young urban middle class, as they will play a “key role” in the longer term.