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WASHINGTON: The Trump admi­nistration has informed Congress that it will take unilateral steps in areas of divergence with Pakistan while expanding cooperation between the two countries where their interests converge.

In a report to Congress, which was released to the media this weekend, the Pentagon also underlined the need for a joint US-Afghan platform for combating more than 20 militant groups active in the region.

This is the Pentagon’s first report on Afghanistan since Aug 21, when President Donald Trump announced his new South Asia strategy, which deepens American military involvement in Afghanistan while urging Pakistan to back US efforts for defeating the Taliban.

The report to Congress emphasised the need for a “fundamental change” in the way Pakistan deals with the alleged terrorist safe havens on its territory.

The Pentagon also informed the lawmakers that the new US strategy calls for a whole-of-government, regional approach to isolate the Taliban from “sources of external support” and to mitigate any malign influence from outside actors.

“Our military-to-military relationship with Pakistan remains critical to the success of our mutual interests in the region,” says the report. “To move forward, we must see fundamental changes in the way Pakistan deals with terrorist safe-havens in its territory.”

To induce that change, the Pentagon proposed working across the US government, “using a range of tools to expand our cooperation with Pakistan in areas where our interests converge and to take unilateral steps in areas of divergence”.

The report noted that more than 20 terrorist or insurgent groups were still active in Afghanistan and Pakistan and their existence “requires an Afghan-supported US platform in the region to monitor, contain, and respond to these threats”.

The report said that the Pak-Afghan border region remained a sanctuary for groups like Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, ISIS-K and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

“Sanctuary on the Pakistani side and presence on the Afghan side remain security challenges for both countries and pose a threat to regional security and stability,” the report added.

The Pentagon said that recent Pakistani military operations had disrupted some militant sanctuaries, certain extremist groups — such as the Taliban and the Haqqani network — “retain freedom of movement in Pakistan”.

“The United States continues to convey to all levels of Pakistani leadership the importance of taking action against all terrorist and extremist groups,” the report added.

The report acknowledged that the hard-won US gains in Afghanistan were fragile, but worth defending and the United States had aligned its diplomatic, military, and economic resources to seek a negotiated settlement to this 17-year-old war.

“We have recommitted to helping the Afghan government and people navigate through these challenges with a new approach that leverages additional support from allies, partners, and regional actors,” it said.

The Pentagon also informed the Afghan government that the US commitment to them was “enduring but not unlimited” and this support was “not a blank check”.

“As long as the Afghan government continues to show real progress and make real reforms, we will continue to support them as our strategic partners in the fight against international terrorism,” the report said.

The Pentagon also stressed the need for making the Taliban realise that they cannot win on the battlefield. “They must know that their only path to peace and political legitimacy is through a negotiated settlement with the Afghan government,” the report added.

In a recent speech at a Washington think tank, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also emphasised this point, saying that Washington’s new conditions-based approach was to “ensure the Taliban know, you will never win a battlefield victory, and the way forward is going to be by engaging in a reconciliation process and ultimately joining a government in Afghanistan”.

Published in Dawn, December 18th, 2017