Sharif can improve ties with India and Afghanistan, says US

Published December 13, 2013
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. — File photo
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. — File photo

WASHINGTON, Dec 12: The United States and India believe that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif can succeed in improving relations with both New Delhi and Kabul, says a senior US official.

And the United States wants Mr Sharif to have “a fair chance of being able to do so”, said US Special Representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, James Dobbins.

Pakistan, its role in Afghanistan and its relations with India were discussed thoroughly at a congressional hearing — “Afghanistan 2014: Year of Transition” — on Wednesday afternoon.

Congressman Ed Royce, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, brought the Pakistan element into the debate in his opening remarks, claiming Pakistan’s military and security service continue to complicate matters by supporting the Taliban.

“Pakistan is a double-dealer, paying lip service to cooperation with the US … while simultaneously undermining our primary objective of bringing Afghanistan under the control of a democratically elected government,” he said.

Congressman Ami Bera, a California Democrat of Indian origin, highlighted Indian concern that once the US withdrew from Afghanistan, “hardened, trained jihadi fighters will start shifting over to the Indian-Pakistan border”.

“Probably the greatest contribution India could make and Pakistan can make in Afghanistan is improving their bilateral relationship,” said Mr Dobbins, while responding to Mr Bera’s remarks.

This will have two effects: It will greatly increase the access of Afghan trade to India via Pakistan and will reduce the “highly destabilising” competition between the two countries for influence in Afghanistan, he said.

“So we’ve been encouraging both Pakistan and India to overcome their differences in Kashmir, their differences over Afghanistan. And I think there is some hope with the new Pakistani government.”

Ambassador Dobbins assured India that there was no near-term danger of foreign fighters shifting from Afghanistan to the Indian border. “But the Indian concerns are legitimate and it’s something that we do need to be careful about,” he said.

“Do you sense, in your conversations with the Pakistani government, (a) desire (to improve ties with India)?” Mr Bera asked.

“I do and I think the Indians do as regards the new prime minister and his civilian leadership,” Ambassador Dobbins replied.

But he also pointed out that in Pakistan “the security sphere has been left largely to the military and they’ve been largely free of civilian oversight or control. The last time Nawaz Sharif tried to exercise that kind of control, he was overthrown by General Musharraf,” he added.

“So he has to be careful about how quickly he moves to assert civilian control of the military and a stronger civilian role in designing and implementing Pakistan’s national security policy.”

Mr Dobbins noted that Mr Sharif was very clear that Pakistan could not be secure unless Afghanistan was at peace and relations with India improved.

“And he’s tried to move in both directions. I think the Indian government takes him at face value and believes he’s sincere,” he said.

“They’re a little sceptical that he will prevail in exercising enough influence over the Pakistani military and we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Mr Dobbins noted that the Pakistani military too realised their biggest threat was internal and they needed the political leadership to take responsibility for “sometimes harsh measures” for dealing with this threat.

Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, said in a recent meeting with her, Afghan President Hamid Karzai dismissed the US perception of an Iranian threat to peace in Afghanistan as “no problem at all.”

Instead, he saw Pakistan as “the real threat to stability for Afghanistan.”

Ambassador Dobbins agreed with the observation that the arms and money flowing across the Pakistani border were “much more important than across the Iranian border” but told the panel that Iran too was “playing both sides of the house.”

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