WASHINGTON: The Biden administration sees Pakistan as an “essential partner” in any peace process in Afghanistan and believes that “continuing to build relationships with Pakistan’s military will provide openings for the United States and Pakistan to cooperate on key issues,” says its nominated defence chief Gen Lloyd J. Austin.

Gen Austin made these remarks during his confirmation hearing for the post of secretary of defence before the United States Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

“Pakistan is an essential partner in any peace process in Afghanistan,” Mr Austin, a former head of the US Central Command, told the committee. “If confirmed, I will encourage a regional approach that garners support from neighbours like Pakistan, while also deterring regional actors, from serving as spoilers to the Afghanistan peace process.”

Gen Austin describes country as ‘essential partner’ during Senate committee hearing

The remarks indicate that the Biden administration may want Pakistan to play a more active role in ending the Afghan conflict.

Joe Biden, now the US president, also indicated this during a presidential debate last year. “We can prevent the United States from being the victim of terror coming out of Afghanistan by providing for bases — insist the Pakistanis provide bases for us to air lift from and to move against what we know,” Mr Biden said.

Gen Austin, when asked at his confirmation what changes he would recommend to US relations with Pakistan as the new defence chief, said: “Pakistan will play an important role in any political settlement in Afghanistan. We also need to work with Pakistan to defeat Al Qaeda and the militant Islamic State (Khorasan) group (IS-K) and to enhance regional stability.”

To improve ties between the two militaries, he also suggested enhancing training facilities for Pakistani military officials in the US. “I will focus on our shared interests which include training future Pakistan military leaders through the use of International Military Education and Training funds,” he said.

Asked if he has perceived any change in Pakistan’s cooperation with the US since the Trump administration’s decision in 2018 to withhold security assistance, Mr. Austin said: “I understand Pakistan has taken constructive steps to meet US requests in support of the Afghanistan peace process. Pakistan has also taken steps against anti-Indian groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-i-Mohammad, although this progress is incomplete.”

The general, however, acknowledged that “many factors in addition to the security assistance suspension may impact Pakistan’s cooperation, including Afgha­nistan negotiations and the dangerous escalation following the Pulwama terrorist attack.”

“Pakistan is a sovereign country,” he said when asked what tools and options the US had to influence Pakistan.

“I will press Pakistan to prevent its territory from being used as a sanctuary for militants and violent extremist organisations. Continuing to build relationships with Pakistan’s military will provide openings for the United States and Pakistan to cooperate on key issues.”

Taliban deal review

Meanwhile, Tony Blinken, who appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for his confirmation hearing for the post of secretary of state, said he wanted to review the US-Taliban peace deal but clarified that the new administration would also continue the peace process started by the Trump administration.

Mr Blinken, who is a former State Department official, said he would undertake a review of the peace deal because like the outgoing Trump administration, which negotiated the deal, the new US rulers also want to end the almost 20-year long war in Afghanistan.

“We want to end this so-called forever war,” he insisted. “We want to bring our forces home. We want to retain some capacity to deal with any resurgence of terrorism, which is what brought us there in the first place.”

“India has been a bipartisan success story of our successive administrations. It started towards the end of the Clinton administration,” he said.

Underlining the need to have a closer look at the agreement the Trump administration and the Taliban signed in February 2020, Mr. Blinken said: “We have to look carefully at what has actually been negotiated. I haven’t been privy to it yet.”

Relations with India

The Biden administration, Mr Blinken said, would also like to continue a close relationship with India.

“During the Obama administration, we deepened cooperation on defence procurement and information sharing. The Trump administration carried that forward including its concept of Indo-Pacific and to make sure we were working with India so that no country in the region, including China, could challenge its sovereignty.”

The US, he said, would also continue to work with India on concerns that the two countries share about terrorism.

Published in Dawn, January 21st, 2021

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