United States President Barack Obama ordered on Wednesday all 33,000 US surge troops home from Afghanistan by next summer and declared the beginning of the end of the war, but at the same time made clear in a blunt message to Pakistan that he was ready to order more assaults against any safe havens harbouring those who aimed to kill Americans.
Obama vowed the US would “insist” Pakistan fulfilled its promises to counter militant sanctuaries on its soil, AFP reported. “We will work with the Pakistani government to root out the cancer of violent extremism, and we will insist that it keep its commitments,” Obama said in a televised speech on troop withdrawal plans for the war in Afghanistan. “For there should be no doubt that so long as I am president, the United States will never tolerate a safe-haven for those who aim to kill us: they cannot elude us, nor escape the justice they deserve,” he said.
Obama said no country was more endangered by the presence of violent extremists than Pakistan, but added that his government would “continue to press Pakistan to expand its participation in securing a more peaceful future for this war-torn region”. Obama said in an exclusive interview with Voice of America later on Thursday that Pakistan had always seen terrorism as either a problem for somebody else or had seen elements of Taliban as a hedge in terms of their influence in Afghanistan, a private TV channel reported.
“But if it is having a direct relationship with the Afghan government which is constructive then there is no reason for them to see the Taliban as a hedge against Afghanistan. Instead they should see the Afghan government as a partner that they can work with,” Obama said. He said the US had sought to strengthen cooperation with Pakistan and although it had led to some tensions, overall Pakistan had cooperated with the US in “our intelligence collection efforts, in striking at high-value targets inside Pakistan”.
To a question on how the US intended to repair the relationship with Pakistan, he said the relationship had become more honest over time and that raised differences that were real. “And obviously the operation to take out Osama bin Laden created additional tensions but I had always been very clear to Pakistan that if we ever found [bin Laden] and had a shot, we would take it,” he said.
In a watershed moment for American foreign policy, Obama also significantly curtailed US war aims, saying Washington would no longer try to build a “perfect” Afghanistan from a nation traumatised by decades of war.
“The tide of war is receding,” Obama said in his prime time speech. “Even as there will be dark days ahead in Afghanistan, the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance. These long wars will come to a responsible end,” he added.
The president argued US forces had made large strides towards the objectives of the troop surge strategy he ordered in December 2009 by reversing Taliban momentum, crushing al Qaeda and training new Afghan forces.
But he ultimately rejected appeals from the Pentagon for a slower drawdown to safeguard gains against the Taliban. The president said he would, as promised, begin the US withdrawal this July and that 10,000 of the more than 30,000 troops he committed to the escalation of the conflict would be home this year.
A further 23,000 surge troops would be withdrawn by next summer, and more yet-to-be announced drawdowns would continue, until Afghan forces assumed security responsibility in 2014. “This is the beginning – but not the end – of our effort to wind down this war,” Obama said. Obama’s plans drew a mixed reaction. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the partial withdrawal was a “natural result” of progress on the ground.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai also welcomed the announcement, as did US allies Germany and France, which said they would embark on similar withdrawals.
Republican Senator John McCain, however, said Obama was taking an “unnecessary risk” and noted the US military leadership had recommended a slower withdrawal.
Presidential candidate Mitt Romney meanwhile suggested Obama’s motivation was political, saying: “We all want our troops to come home as soon as possible, but we shouldn’t adhere to an arbitrary timetable.”
Despite Pentagon appeals for a more modest drawdown, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he backed Obama’s withdrawal plan, adding that it “provides our commanders with enough resources, time and, perhaps most importantly, flexibility to bring the surge to a successful conclusion”.
Gates said success was possible in the war in Afghanistan without Pakistan fully cooperating in countering militants along its border. With Pakistan taking some positive steps, Gates said: “I think that as long as the picture stays mixed like that, that we can be successful.”
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the US was not prepared to continue the same levels of military aid to Pakistan unless it saw some changes in the relationship, Reuters reported.
“When it comes to our military aid, we are not prepared to continue providing that at the pace we were providing it unless and until we see some steps taken,” Clinton told a Senate committee. She did not specify the steps, but stressed it was time for the US and Pakistan to ensure their interests and actions were aligned.
PAKISTAN ANNOYED: Pakistan refrained from a clear reaction to Obama’s withdrawal but Foreign Office officials said the US president’s tough stance against alleged terrorist havens on Pakistani soil had deeply annoyed the Pakistani leadership, which had decided to formally take up the matter with Washington.
Pakistani leaders generally had no problem with the troop withdrawal, said the officials, but they were concerned about Pakistan being left out and kept away from ongoing US talks with the Taliban. They said the Pakistani leadership was also concerned that Washington had failed to address Pakistan’s concerns regarding India’s growing influence in Afghanistan despite many assurances extended to Islamabad that its “legitimate concerns” would be taken care of.
“We have ongoing engagement on issues of peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan and counter-terrorism,” Foreign Office Spokeswoman Tehmina Janjua said, referring to Obama’s statements earlier in the day. “We will have the opportunity to discuss these issues in greater detail when the core group of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US will meet in Kabul early next week,” she added, according to a Foreign Office statement.
She did not elaborate on matters that Pakistani would discuss with the US in Kabul.
A Foreign Ministry official, who asked not to be named, said Pakistani leaders were expecting words of appreciation and solace from Obama as they felt Pakistan was the country that had suffered more than anyone else in US-led global anti-terrorism campaign.
“That didn’t happen and instead President Obama opted for tough language against Pakistan that has disappointed the ruling circles in Islamabad,” he said.