ISLAMABAD: US Defence Secretary Lloyd J. Austin on Monday praised Pakistan’s cooperation for peace in Afghanistan.
Austin, in telephone conversation with Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa, according to a readout of the conversation issued by Pentagon, “expressed gratitude for Islamabad’s continued support for the Afghan peace process”.
The defence secretary called Gen Bajwa while returning from Afghanistan, where he paid an unannounced visit on Sunday to understand the situation in the war-torn country.
The Biden administration is currently undertaking a review of the deal signed by its predecessor with the Taliban in February last year under which US troops are to withdraw from Afghanistan by May 1. The review process would lead to the decision by the new administration on whether or not to adhere to the agreed timeline for troop pullout.
Austin, while speaking at a press conference in Afghanistan before his departure, said his engagements in Kabul would inform his “participation in the review we are undergoing here with the president. It’s very helpful.”
Pakistan has been closely engaged with US in the Afghan peace process and facilitated the signing of the US-Taliban agreement and later the commencement of the intra-Afghan talks, which currently appear stalled because of the review process going on in Washington.
Gen Bajwa had at a security conference in Islamabad last week said: “Our robust role in current quest for peace in Afghanistan is a proof of our goodwill and understanding of our global and moral obligations.”
Islamabad, meanwhile, wants both parties — US and Taliban — to progress on the implementation of their Feb 2020 deal and build further on it so that a peaceful political settlement could be achieved.
Afghanistan is one area where the Biden administration is still seeking Pakistan’s cooperation, although the erstwhile ally has lost salience for Washington in its broader strategic calculations.
The defence secretary had in his confirmation hearing told the US Senate Armed Services Committee that he saw Pakistan as an “essential partner” in Afghan peace process and that building “relationships with Pakistan’s military would provide openings for the United States and Pakistan to cooperate on key issues”.
Austin, meanwhile, in his conversation with the army chief reassured him that the US would like to continue its cooperation with Pakistan in areas of “common interest”.
According to the readout: “Secretary Austin reinforced the United States’ commitment to maintaining a strong bilateral defence relationship with Pakistan and expressed gratitude for Islamabad’s continued support for the Afghan peace process.”
In another statement, the Pentagon noted that “Secretary Austin came away from his meetings in New Delhi encouraged by the response from “an increasingly important partner amid today’s rapidly shifting international dynamics”.
At a news conference in Kabul, Austin, who is a former head of the US Central Command that also looks after the US war in Afghanistan, insisted on the need to bring the Afghan war to “a responsible end”.
He refused to give a final deadline for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.
Secretary Austin, however, ignored a Taliban warning that US troops in Afghanistan would face the consequences of Washington’s refusal to meet the May 1 deadline. But he did say that he believed the US commanders had the capability to repel attacks on their troops and had the right to defence themselves.
Pakistan’s envoy in Washington, meanwhile, said that Islamabad wanted a stand-alone relationship with the United States, although it’s willing to continue playing a positive role in the Afghan peace process.
“We really want to have a stand-alone relationship which should not be seen through the prism of any other country,” Ambassador Asad Majeed Khan said at a recent seminar in Washington. “We would like to have a realistic and mutually beneficial partnership.”
The Biden administration has retained Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad as its special envoy for Afghanistan who completed his first trip to the region this week as an emissary of the new US government, visiting Doha, Kabul and Islamabad.
“The ongoing Afghan peace process is our best bet in achieving an inclusive end-state in Afghanistan,” said Ambassador Khan. “Instead of starting from where it all began, it is critical to put all our energies behind making the intra-Afghan negotiations successful.”
He said there were two pillars to the peace process: “the US-Taliban agreement, and the intra-Afghan negotiations” and both were necessary for its success.
Anwar Iqbal in Washington also contributed to this report
Published in Dawn, March 23rd, 2021