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Afghans Welcome Expected U.S. Policy Changes On Pakistan Taliban Sanctuaries

FILE U.S. and Afghan soldiers race to get out of the way of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter landing.
FILE U.S. and Afghan soldiers race to get out of the way of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter landing.

Former and current Afghan security officials and lawmakers have welcomed an expected reorientation of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, which is now predicted to focus on ending militant sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan.

Afghan officials are optimistically evaluating congressional testimonies by U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis this week. During his two testimonies, Mattis hinted that as part of a "regional approach" Washington’s action against insurgents will be “connected to the geographic reality of where this enemy is fighting from,” which is “not just Afghanistan.”

General Sher Muhammad Karimi, a former top Afghan soldier, says a U.S. action on denying the Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan will go a long way to turn around the war.

“One of the problem we always encountered was that the U.S. and Pakistan were old allies, which prompted Washington to look at things from Islamabad’s perspective while preventing it from addressing Afghan concerns [about Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan],” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Now if they really want to defeat terrorism, they need to include Pakistan in their strategy and recalibrate their pressures and relations with the country.”

Karimi was one of the Afghan officials who regularly accused Pakistan of providing safe havens for the Taliban and attempted to convince his U.S. and NATO counterparts that without addressing the issue a victory in the Afghan war would remain elusive.

U.S. and NATO dependence on Pakistan as their main supply route for troops stationed in landlocked Afghanistan also prevented them from going after the Afghan Taliban sanctuaries in the country’s western borderlands with Afghanistan.

While hundreds of suspected U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan’s northwestern Federally Administered Tribal Areas have killed Al-Qaeda and allied Central Asia and Pakistani Taliban fighters, there was only one U.S. drone strike in the southwestern province of Balochistan, where remnants of the Taliban regime regrouped to launch an insurgency inside Afghanistan by 2003.

The lone U.S. drone strike in Balochistan killed former Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansur in May 2016.

Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri said Washington’s failure to deal with Pakistan’s covert support for the insurgents has prolonged the Afghan conflict.

“In its new strategy, the U.S. must address this issue,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “They need to pressure Pakistan to cease supporting terrorists.”

Lawmaker Najiba Hussaini, a member of Mishrano Jirga or the upper house of the Afghan Parliament, agreed. She told Radio Free Afghanistan that the new U.S. strategy will benefit her country only if Washington and its allies go after terrorist sanctuaries in the region.

“The U.S. and its allies must launch airstrikes against the terrorists in Pakistan and elsewhere,” she said. “This will be a good solution.”

Islamabad, however, is working overtime to show it is interested in peace within its western neighbor. Sartaj Aziz, adviser to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on foreign affairs, says with Chinese facilitation Islamabad wants to improve relations with Kabul.

“Prime Minister [Sharif] and President [Ashraf Ghani] had a very good meeting in Astana [on June 9], and [they agreed] there’s been enough of the blame game and we should move forward and try to restore trust,” he told Radio Mashaal on June 14. “China is also very keen on improvement in Pak-China relations.”

A more telling response came from Pakistan’s powerful military chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

During a visit to the northwestern city of Peshawar on June 14, he said Afghanistan was a “brotherly neighbor” and terrorists were a “common enemy” of both countries.

But in a visible move to offset the likely new U.S. approach, Bajwa warned that “unilateral actions like drone strike are counterproductive and against [the] spirit of ongoing cooperation and intelligence-sharing being diligently undertaken by Pakistan,” an official statement quoted him as saying.

The statement followed a suspected U.S. drone strike on June 13, which reportedly killed a Haqqani network commander in the Speen Tal area of Hangu, a rural district some 300 kilometers south of Peshawar.

The network, named after distinguished Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, is considered a lethal Taliban faction that mostly orchestrates complex attacks in Kabul.

Afghan officials blamed the faction for a devastating tanker bomb that killed more than 150 people in Kabul’s diplomatic area on May 31. But Sirajuddin Haqqani, the network’s current alleged head and one of the top Taliban leaders, denied responsibility for the attack.

In 2011, former U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen dubbed the network a "veritable arm" of the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan's secret service.

Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Hadee Pardes contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan. Radio Mashaal correspondent Rabia Akram contributed reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan.