ISLAMABAD: The United States’ plan to maintain a military presence in Afghanistan beyond the stipulated 2014 deadline does not seem to be sitting too well with Pakistan, as Islamabad has begun secret diplomatic manoeuvres to forge a consensus among regional states to thwart American ambitions, The Express Tribune has learnt.
Pakistan has stepped up efforts to take China, Iran, Russia and other neighbours of the war-torn country on board to “convince or force” the US to abandon the region by 2014.
Back-to-back trips by top Pakistani political and military leaders in recent months were all part of Islamabad’s diplomacy to seek support from countries bordering Afghanistan, sources revealed.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has just returned from Iran. President Asif Ali Zardari visited Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, China and Tajikistan over the past two months. Similarly, Chief of General Staff of the Pakistan Army Lt Gen Waheed Arshad was also in Beijing for a week two months ago, with officials in Islamabad saying his visit was “part of the security establishment’s manoeuvres to get China on its side”.
There was a consensus, by and large, among all regional states including China and Iran that any solution in Afghanistan should envisage a complete US drawdown from the war-hit nation, officials familiar with these developments said. “Discussions in Beijing, Moscow, Tehran and Islamabad right now are focusing on how these regional players should take a lead role in the transition in Afghanistan,” a foreign ministry official said.
Iran is ready to accept a Taliban comeback into the Kabul administration, but wants to restrict their presence to the southeast of the country. China too considered them a “lesser evil” compared to US presence in their “backyard”, diplomatic authorities revealed.
However, in March, US Deputy Undersecretary of Defence Michele Flournoy said in a Congressional testimony that “Washington would continue to carry out counter-terrorism operations” from “joint-bases” in Afghanistan “well beyond 2014”.
The statements are being interpreted by security experts in Islamabad as “a declaration of war” against Pakistan because the Obama administration has time and again said that al Qaeda is now operating from the country’s tribal badlands.
(Read: War on terrorism - ‘US does not intend to leave Afghanistan’)
Flournoy’s revelation meant the Obama administration intended to maintain a long-term troop-presence in Afghanistan regardless of negotiations with the Taliban.
Iran was the first country to oppose the US’ plan within a week. A top official at the Iranian foreign ministry told the media that the proposed Strategic Partnership Declaration (SPD) between the US and Afghanistan, focused on the implications of a long-term US presence in Kabul, was “unacceptable” as it “posed a threat to the security of the entire region”.
An SPD guaranteeing long-term US presence and establishment of military bases constitutes a threat to regional security, said Mohsen Pakaein, head of the Iranian foreign ministry’s headquarters for Afghanistan.
Afghans want US troops to stay on
“Most Afghans want a binding security pact with the US that will keep American troops in Afghanistan indefinitely, said an advisor to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Negotiations for such a pact have been lagging in part because “some in the Afghan government are trying to sabotage it”, Taj Ayubi, minister-counselor to Karzai told AFP.
Mum’s the word
The prime minister’s spokesperson, Akram Shaheedi, confirmed that Afghanistan came up for discussion but refused to divulge any information when asked if Pakistan was opposed to the US prolonging its presence in Afghanistan. “I can neither confirm nor deny this,” he said.
(Read: Afghanistan — as the withdrawal gets underway)
“Well, it is a difficult question to answer... only the Foreign Office can explain Islamabad’s official stance on it,” he added.
The Foreign Office, meanwhile, was not willing to offer direct comments on the matter. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Tehmina Janjua simply said, “Our policy, our stated position on Afghanistan is that any settlement in the war-torn country has to be Afghan-led, and all stakeholders must be kept on board.”
Asked whether Islamabad too, supported a strategic pact between Washington and Kabul, she added: “I don’t want to comment on anything specific.”
Pakistan understands that regional countries could be in a better position to decide how to fight terrorism than “those sitting thousands of miles away”, said Farhatullah Babar President Zardari’s spokesperson.
Afghanistan was part of President Zardari’s meetings with the Iran and Saudi Arabia leaderships, he confirmed.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 15th, 2011.
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