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Pakistan Likely To Continue Defying U.S. Pressure On Taliban Support

FILE: A car is seen on fire at the site of a drone strike believed to have killed Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansur in the southwestern province of Balochistan in May 2016.
FILE: A car is seen on fire at the site of a drone strike believed to have killed Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansur in the southwestern province of Balochistan in May 2016.

For nearly 15 years, Washington showered aid dollars and praise on Islamabad to encourage it to abandon support for hard-line Islamist militant groups in general and the Afghan Taliban in particular.

But a tough approach involving ceasing aid to Pakistan and publicly questioning its counterterror efforts is making little headway in changing Islamabad’s approach to its quarter-century of support for Afghan insurgents.

As a new Pakistani civilian administration settles in, Islamabad is unlikely to change course on the Afghan Taliban despite Washington’s visible efforts to prompt a change of perspective in Islamabad by denying aid and publicly urging it to move against militants.

With U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and General Joseph Dunford, the top U.S. military officer, scheduled to visit Islamabad on September 5, the two countries still seem miles apart.

Ayaz Wazir, a former Pakistani diplomat, says relations between Washington and Islamabad are overshadowed by the issue of how to deal with militants operating out of Pakistan, particularly those active in Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan played a major role in worsening our relations with Washington, and it will continue to do so if we fail to address their [U.S.] concerns,” he told Pakistan’s private Capital TV. “I think we should stop looking at who is accusing us of harboring militants, but if there are militants here we should do something about them.”

Ahead of Pompeo’s visit, the U.S. military canceled $300 million in aid to Pakistan because of a perceived lack of action against militants. This year, Washington has revoked nearly $800 million in payments to Islamabad from the so-called Coalition Support Funds (CSF).

Washington has also pushed for Pakistan’s inclusion on a global money-laundering watchdog list and taken other steps to push Islamabad to ramp up its counterterrorism efforts after U.S. President Donald Trump accused Islamabad of harboring the terrorists his country’s forces are fighting in Afghanistan.

“We have made decisions on curbing assistance and putting constraints on our relationship with Pakistan as a means to try to persuade them to adopt that course and use their influence on the Taliban,” Randall G. Schriver, assistant U.S. secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, told a think tank audience in Washington on August 29.

Efforts to involve Islamabad in helping Kabul reach a peace settlement with the Talban suffered a major blow after Afghan and U.S. officials pointed fingers at Pakistan following a botched Taliban attempt to overrun the strategic southeastern Afghan city of Ghazni last month.

“The Taliban enjoy freedom of action there [in Pakistan]; they occasionally come from there, and casualties are taken back there. These are things we are concerned about,” General John Nicholson, commander of the NATO-led Resolute Support mission, told journalists on August 23.

In Islamabad’s corridors of power, however, everything still seems to be up for discussion.

“We will try to inform them [U.S. officials] of the performance and progress Pakistan has made by incurring financial losses and casualties,” Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told BBC’s Urdu service. “We think that this contact will provide us an opportunity to understand each other.”

For years, Islamabad has urged Washington and its NATO allies to compare their combined casualties to its losses in the war against terrorism while urging against scapegoating Pakistan for their failures in Afghanistan.

While Pakistan might have lost more soldiers since 2004, nothing explains its longstanding relations with Taliban leaders, most of whom continue to shelter on Pakistani soil.

In March 2016, Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan's adviser for foreign affairs, acknowledged that Islamabad has “some influence over them [Taliban] because their leadership is in Pakistan and they get some medical facilities. Their families are here."

Two months later, a U.S. drone strike killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansur in the southwestern province of Balochistan. He was apparently targeted as he returned to his Pakistani hideout after visiting Iran in May 2016.

Sherry Rehman, a former Pakistani envoy in Washington, however, argues that Pakistan can still leverage Washington’s dependence on Pakistani routes for to supplying its forces in Afghanistan.

“They do not have a northern [supply] route to [U.S. forces in] Afghanistan,” she told Pakistan’s Geo TV. “They need us for evacuation or whatever presence they want to keep in Afghanistan. They still need GLOCs [ground lines of communications]. The political settlement they are seeking in Afghanistan cannot be achieved without us [Pakistan].”

In Washington, few seem ready to listen to such arguments since Trump accused Islamabad of giving “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan” in January.

The "United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools," he wrote on Twitter.

Assistant U.S. Secretary of Defense Randall Shriver said Washington would like Islamabad to help bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table so that they can negotiate a peace deal with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s national unity government.

“Our approach of cutting assistance and pressuring Pakistan on their relationship with the Taliban will be sustained,” he said.