WASHINGTON: The United States seeks to boost its relationship with Pakistan, though it is committed to winding up its combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of next year, says a top Pentagon commander.
Gen Lloyd J. Austin, nominee for commander of US Central Command (Centcom), told his confirmation hearing earlier this week that the conflict in Afghanistan remained Centcom’s top priority despite the Obama administration’s determination to end the war by December 2014.
President Barack Obama announced this week that 34,000 US troops, about half of those now there, would leave Afghanistan over the next year and this, the general said, had increased Centcom’s responsibilities.
The movement of so many troops and their equipment would be a “Herculean undertaking,” Gen Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Last week, reports in the Pakistani media said the US had already started the pullout and was using the Karachi port for the purpose.
Senator Joseph Donnelly, a Democrat, suggested the United States should also make alternative arrangements for withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“One of the things we want to do is to continue to work closely with Pakistan on that plan, but also have alternative options, if there are bumps in the road as we proceed forward with borders and with other things,” he said.
Former US ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter told a briefing in Washington on Wednesday that Washington’s “callousness” over the killing of 24 Pakistani troops in a US air strike on a post in November 2011 had strained ties between the two nations.
“The fact that we were unable to say that we were sorry until July (2012) cost our country literally billions of dollars,” Mr Munter said.
But Gen Austin assured the Senate committee that ties with Pakistan were on a positive trail now. “I think our relations with Pakistan are critical.”
Gen Austin, now the Army’s vice chief of staff, said as the new Centcom commander his goal would be to “immediately work to continue to boost the existing relationship, which is on somewhat of a positive slope right now, a positive path.”
When a senator asked how he would deal with Pakistan as the Centcom chief, Gen Austin said: “I want to continue to build on that. They will be a key throughout going into the future.” But lawmakers underlined the problems that strain relations between the two allies and urged him to deal with those too.
“Among the greatest threats to stability are the safe havens for Afghan insurgents across the Pakistan border, which the government of Pakistan has failed to disrupt or eliminate,” said Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Ranking Republican Senator James Inhofe said: “In Pakistan, we see a nuclear-armed government teetering on collapse while militant groups have enjoyed that as a safe haven.”—Correspondent