US fails to take decisive steps against terror safe havens: US official

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WASHINGTON, June 20 (PTI): Pakistan has not taken “sustained or decisive” steps against terror safe havens as expected by the US, a top American diplomat has said, nearly a year after President Donald Trump unveiled his South Asia strategy accusing Islamabad of harbouring terrorists.

Alice G Wells, Senior Bureau Official for South and Central Asian Affairs said despite some positive indicators, the US has not yet seen Pakistan taking the sustained or decisive steps that it would have expected to see ten months after the announcement of the South Asia strategy, including “arresting or expelling Taliban elements who will not come to the negotiating table.”

Wells, who is scheduled to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, said in her prepared statement ahead of her hearing that “Pakistan is on notice that we expect its unequivocal cooperation ending sanctuaries that the Taliban have enjoyed since the remnants of their toppled regime fled into Pakistan in 2001.

The US, she said, is engaging with all of Afghanistan’s neighbours and near neighbours to build regional support for the Afghan government’s peace vision and discourage spoilers.

Unveiling his new South Asia strategy in August last year, Trump had accused Pakistan of giving “safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror,” and said the time had come “for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilisation, order, and to peace”.

Trump had also sought a major role for India in bringing peace in Afghanistan.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee has convened a hearing on US Policy Toward Afghanistan. During the hearing, Wells said Pakistan has an important role to play and has legitimate interests that it wants to ensure are met during any peace process.

“The dialogue that we have with Pakistan seeks to address those concerns while also encouraging additional concrete support for Afghan peace efforts,” she said.

For example, with US support, Pakistan and Afghanistan entered into a constructive dialogue to develop the Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS), an initiative to which we have given our full support, the US diplomat said.

Wells said all of Afghanistan’s neighbours from Iran and Russia, to India, China, and the Central Asian states have repeatedly stated their support for an Afghan peace process.

“All of these countries feel a strong stake in Afghanistan’s future security and stability. They all would benefit from a political settlement in Afghanistan, which would help to reduce the terrorist and narcotics threat to their own citizens and also bolster regional economic cooperation,” she noted.

In a statement ahead of the hearing, Congressman Ed Royce, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said a stable and secure Afghanistan is in the interest of the US.

“Achieving this requires a credible US military presence and an equally strong diplomatic strategy. This hearing will look at the administration’s policy toward Afghanistan, particularly in light of upcoming elections, the challenges regional actors pose to Afghanistan and efforts to counter violent extremism,” Royce said.

In her prepared testimony, Wells said the administration’s conditions-based South Asia Strategy ensures the Taliban cannot win on the battlefield.

‘But it recognises that a resolution to the conflict will be through a negotiated political settlement. Our desired outcomes for any peace process are clear and have not changed. The Taliban must renounce violence, break ties with al-Qaeda, and accept the Afghan Constitution including its protections for women and minorities,” she said.

According to Wells, after more than 16 years of war, there is a real opportunity this year to start an Afghan peace process that could lead to a durable settlement of the conflict.

“Such a settlement would help secure vital US interests and ultimately reduce the costs associated with America’s long-term engagement in Afghanistan,” she said.

“The basis for our cautious optimism starts with the Afghan government, which under President (Ashraf) Ghani’s strong leadership is doing everything possible to signal its openness to a dialogue with the Taliban,” she said.

In February, Ghani had invited the Taliban to enter into a peace process without preconditions an unprecedented gesture by the Afghan government.

“More recently, President Ghani took another unprecedented step and announced a temporary ceasefire in offensive operations against the Taliban for the week surrounding the Eid holidays,” Wells said.

“The Taliban responded with a three-day ceasefire. This was the first national ceasefire in the last 17 years of the Afghan conflict, and the national outpouring of relief and joy this past weekend was unlike anything Afghanistan has seen in many years, Wells observed in her written testimony.”

According to Wells, recently, there have been signs that the Taliban’s Pakistan-based leaders are debating the merits of joining a peace process. However, the group has not responded to President Ghani’s offer of unconditional talks.

“We are pursuing a multi-track strategy to make clear to the Taliban that negotiations are their best option. The strategy has a number of distinct lines of effort quite apart from the military effort,” she said.

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