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WASHINGTON: A senior US general has assured Islamabad that the United States is not planning to conduct military operations inside Pakistan.

Another general said that despite differences Pakistan remains “absolutely critical” to America’s success in Afghanistan, while the Pentagon’s chief spokesperson urged Islamabad to join US efforts to defeat terrorists in the South Asian region.

“We actually don’t contemplate military operations inside Pakistan,” US Joint Staff Director Lt Gen Kenneth McKenzie said at a Pentagon news briefing on Thursday afternoon.

“On the other hand, we recognise — because the strategy is inherently regional and Pakistan is geographically located at a critical nexus of a lot of different things — Pakistan is a fundamental part of the strategy,” he added.

The assurances followed a White House statement on Tuesday, saying that the US military had been given authority to eliminate militant safe havens in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The statement alarmed Islamabad and Defence Minister Khurram Dastgir Khan told the Urdu service of Voice of America (VOA), that he took the statement “very seriously”.

“We want to make it clear to the US that Pakistan is a sovereign country and its sovereignty must be respected,” he said. “Instead of using these words, which can be interpreted in any way, Pakistan should be consulted.”

The defence minister also said that statements like this were “taking us away from peace in Afghanistan”.

At the Pentagon news briefing, a journalist asked Lt Gen Kenneth McKenzie to explain the White House statement, which he said was interpreted in the Pakistani media as saying that the US could possibly strike inside of Pakistan.

“Through a variety of measures, we look to gain Pakistani cooperation and assistance as we pursue operations in Afghanistan,” said the general while explaining how the US strategy for South Asia plans to deal with Pakistan. “But no, we’re not planning to conduct military operations inside Pakistan.”

Pentagon chief spokesperson Dana W. White said the strategy had created an opportunity for Pakistan to cooperate with the US in defeating the terrorists operating in the region.

“We’ve said many times that — that Pakistan has an opportunity. It has been a victim of terrorism, and it has supported terrorism. And we are looking for Pakistan to actively join — it can do the things we need them to do to confront terrorism,” she said. “So, it’s an inflection point, it’s an opportunity, and we hope Pakistan will take it.”

Ms White, however, said that she did not agree with the assessment of some Pakistani officials that the US had failed in Afghanistan and that’s why it was blaming Pakistan. “We haven’t failed,” she said.

Asked if she saw a link between the rise of terrorist attacks in Kabul and the US decision to suspend military aid to Pakistan, Ms White said: “The Taliban is desperate. They’re murderous and they attack innocent civilians.”

At a separate briefing arranged by the US State Department’s Dubai Regional Media Hub, US Central Command chief Gen Joseph Votel said on Wednesday that Pakistan remained “absolutely critical” to the success of America’s South Asia security strategy. The Arab News reported that Gen Votel said the new South Asia strategy required the partnership of not just Afghanistan, but of all countries in the region, and Pakistan was a key part of that region.

“We have had our differences with Pakistan over the years on this, but Pakistan remains absolutely critical to the solution of the problem in Afghanistan,” he said.

Published in Dawn, February 3rd, 2018