WASHINGTON: The Trump administration’s South Asia strategy gives US commanders in the region the authority and resources they need to deal with “terrorist safe havens in both Afghanistan and Pakistan”, says the White House.

The strategy that President Donald Trump announced in August last year underlines the US determination to defeat the Taliban in the battlefield in order to force them to accept the current administrative set-up in Kabul.

As part of this strategy, the Trump administration recently increased drone strikes at alleged terrorist safe havens in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and reports from the region suggest that several ‘commanders’ of the dreaded Haqqani network were also killed in those attacks. But so far, the US administration never spoke of authorising its field commanders to deal with the alleged safe havens inside Pakistan.

Kabul being encouraged to continue holding talks with Islamabad, says official

But the document the White House released on Tuesday night went a step ahead, indicating that American commanders in the region also had the authority to deal with alleged terrorist safe havens inside Pakistan.

“President Trump’s conditions-based South Asia strategy provides commanders with the authority and resources needed to deny terrorists the safe haven they seek in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” it stated. “President Trump is making clear to our allies that they cannot be America’s friend while supporting or condoning terror.”

The White House also mentioned an executive order, issued earlier this month, to suspend security aid to Pakistan, saying: “The president has suspended security assistance to Pakistan, sending a long overdue message to aid recipients that we expect them to fully join us in combating terrorism.”

The document, released while the president was finishing his first State of the Union speech, focuses on issues that Mr Trump either missed in his speech or just mentioned them without elaborating his position, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

He mentioned Afghanistan once but did not refer to Pakistan. However, political observers in Washington interpreted his appeal to Congress to make a law, ensuring that US aid goes only to friends, not to enemies of America, as a veiled reference to Pakistan.

“Tonight, I am asking Congress to pass legislation to help ensure American foreign-assistance dollars always serve American interests, and only go to friends of America, not enemies of America,” said the president, earning a warm applause from his supporters.

Mr Trump said he had authorised his commanders in Afghanistan to directly engage the militants who attack US and Afghan forces, but he did not mention Pakistan.

“As of a few months ago, our warriors in Afghanistan have new rules of engagement,” he said. “Along with their heroic Afghan partners, our military is no longer undermined by artificial timelines, and we no longer tell our enemies our plans.”

On Tuesday, US Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan also explained the Trump administration’s South Asia strategy, indicating that Washington had stayed engaged with Pakistan to solicit its support in implementing this policy.

“Our fight is with the Taliban and with extremist elements, terrorist groups here in Afghanistan,” said Mr Sullivan while talking to a group of journalists in Kabul.

He said that the South Asia strategy was a regional policy, focused on improving the situation in Afghanistan, but it’s a broader regional approach that includes a relationship with Pakistan, India and other countries in the region.

“We will continue our dialogue with Pakistan. Our position, the president’s position has been made clear about our expectations for Pakistan under the South Asia strategy. We also encourage the government of Afghanistan to continue its bilateral discussions with Pakistan,” Mr Sullivan said. “Pakistan needs to be part of the solution, and that is the focus of our South Asia strategy.”

Mr Sullivan made it clear that last week’s terrorist attacks in Kabul, which killed almost 200 people, would have no impact on Washington’s commitment to the South Asia policy.

Published in Dawn, February 1st, 2018

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