Mike Pence warns Islamabad in surprise Kabul visit, says Trump has put Pakistan ‘on notice’
Says Islamabad has much to gain from partnering with Washington
FO says allies do not put each other on notice; DG ISPR says US statements can affect war against terrorism
KABUL/ISLAMABAD: United States Vice President Mike Pence made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Friday, issuing a warning to Pakistan that it has allegedly provided safe haven to terrorists for too long but those days are over now, as President Donald Trump has now “put Pakistan on notice.”
In response, the Foreign Office lashed out at the US, claiming that the statements diverged from recent conversations between both countries’ officials, adding that “allies do not put each other on notice.”
It is crucial to note that since the beginning of the Afghan war more than 16 years ago, this is so far the harshest US warning to Pakistan, indicating Washington’s indignation with Islamabad.
Pence made his remarks as he addressed US troops at the Bagram airfield, becoming the most senior Trump administration official to visit the men and women fighting America’s longest-ever war.
The remarks earned wild applause from the 15,000 US troops, who were jubilant to see the vice president among them on a surprise Christmas visit.
“For too long, Pakistan has provided safe haven to the Taliban and many terrorist organisations, but those days are over,” Pence told the troops.
The US VP reiterated word for word President Donald Trump’s warning that Pakistan must stop offering cross-border safe havens to Taliban factions and armed militant groups fighting US troops and their Afghan allies.
“President Trump has put Pakistan on notice. As the president said, so I say now: Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with the United States, and Pakistan has much to lose by continuing to harbour criminals and terrorists,” the US VP added.
In August, Trump outlined a new strategy to win America’s longest war.
The new US strategy for Afghanistan shows that Pakistan’s strategic position stokes Washington’s desire for a close relationship with Islamabad but it also undermines the relationship between the two countries.
This key element in the US approach to Pakistan is highlighted in the national security strategy that President Trump released this week and also in the Pentagon’s latest report to Congress on the situation in Afghanistan.
The national security strategy questions Pakistan’s ability to protect its nuclear assets, asking it not to indulge destabilising behaviour in Afghanistan and reminds and insist that Islamabad is obliged to help Washington in Pakistan because it receives “massive payments” every year.
On Thursday, the National Command Authority expressed full confidence in the country’s ability to protect the nation’s strategic assets, and reiterated that as a responsible nuclear state, Islamabad will keep improving its nuclear security as well as non-proliferation measures.
Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned Pakistan that it could lose control of its territory if it did not sever ties with the Haqqanis and other terrorists.
Pakistan has rejected these allegations as baseless and insists that it has cleared all terrorist hideouts from its soil in recent military operations.
It has also denied having a soft corner for the Haqqani network, and has reiterated that it targets all terrorist groups without discrimination.
Last week, the Pentagon informed Congress that it would take ‘unilateral steps’ in areas of divergence with Pakistan while expanding cooperation between the two countries where their interests converge.
The Pentagon’s report to Congress emphasises another key point that is missing from the national security strategy: the need for cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“Increased collaboration between Afghanistan and Pakistan is critical to maintaining pressure on militant and terrorist groups and for meeting the enduring security requirements on both sides of the shared border,” says the report.
The Pentagon has noted that the Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship remains tenuous and leaders from each country continue to accuse the other of harbouring terrorists and allowing the planning of attacks from their soil.
‘EXTERNALISING BLAME SHOULD BE PUT ON NOTICE’:
The FO noted that Pence’s scathing remarks were “at variance with the extensive conversations we [Islamabad] have had with the US administration”.
The FO statement stressed the need for the US to create peace and reconciliation mechanisms instead of shifting blame onto Pakistan for its failures in Afghanistan.
“Externalising blame should be put on notice,” the FO said, in addition to a host of “factors responsible for an exponential increase in drug production, expansion of ungoverned spaces, industrial-scale corruption, breakdown of governance, and letting Daesh [aka ISIS, ISIL, IS] gain a foothold in Afghanistan.”
Earlier on Thursday, the FO, during a weekly press, had warned against a “malicious campaign” being used to trivialise Pakistan’s achievements in the war against terrorism, days after US President Donald Trump announced a new National Security Strategy (NSS) which is tough on Pakistan.
FO Spokesperson Dr Muhammad Faisal had rejected the “unfounded accusations” levelled against Islamabad by Trump, who had reminded Pakistan that it is obliged to help America because it receives “massive payments” from Washington every year.
Dr Faisal had asserted that the accusations in the NSS “belie facts on the ground and trivialise Pakistan’s efforts for fighting terrorism and our unmatched sacrifices to promote peace and stability in the region”.
The Pakistani military also responded to Pence’s statement, saying that allied countries do not ‘put each other on notice.’
Director General (DG) Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor said that such statements by US officials can affect the war against terrorism.
“Pakistani forces took effective action against terrorists and no one has ever done what Pakistan did against terrorism,” said Maj Gen Ghafoor in an interview to a private TV channel on Friday.
“Pakistan and the United States have had cordial ties; we do not need aid from the US, but mutual trust.”
The Pakistani military spokesman said that Afghanistan’s war was imposed on Pakistan and stressed on the need for elimination of terror dens inside Afghanistan.
“Pakistan has repeatedly urged for eliminating TTP leadership present inside Afghanistan,” he said.
DG ISPR further stressed management on the Afghan side of the border between the two countries, noting that Pakistan fenced its own side.
He said the two countries should have intelligence sharing.
Commenting further on US statements, Ghafoor said Pakistan has responded to the US allegations on Foreign Office level, adding, “Such statements can affect the war against terrorism.”
Speaking with regard to Coalition Support Fund, he said Pakistan got funds under the CSF for the amount it spent on the war.
“Pakistan isn’t fighting the war against terrorism for the sake of money,” he reiterated.
PENCE’S VISIT CLOAKED IN SECRECY:
Pence’s visit from Bagram to central Kabul, where he met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah was in doubt until the last moment, when a White House official said he countermanded a decision that the weather was not clear enough to travel.
Even then, Pence’s helicopter flight took place in near total darkness, moving low and fast and with a heavy phalanx of secret service and special forces.
The White House official said the decision was made “out of respect. To meet with Ghani and Abdullah.”
The Trump administration, like Barack Obama’s before, has put enormous hope in Ghani, who is seen by the White House as more competent and less corrupt than his predecessor Hamid Karzai.
But his three-year-old “national unity” government appears to be faltering and parliamentary elections have been repeatedly postponed.
Pence had been expected to visit Egypt and Israel this week, a trip that was delayed amid a crunch vote on tax cuts and deadly protests at Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
‘US PUT TALIBAN ON THE RUN’:
As he thanked the US troops for their service, VP Pence told them that they have put the Taliban on the run.
“The American people deserve to know that with the courage of everyone gathered here, we’re making real progress in this fight for freedom in Afghanistan,” Pence told the troops.
“We’ve dramatically increased American air strikes. And together with our Afghan partners, we’ve put the Taliban on the defensive,” he said, also pointing at efforts to target the drug trafficking networks that help fund the Taliban.
“All across this country, we’ve won new victories against the terrorists, no matter what they call themselves or where they try to hide.”
“And never doubt that your mission ─ your mission here in Afghanistan ─ is vital to the safety and security of the American people,” Pence said.
Pence’s visit was designed to shift the spotlight back on personnel and their mission, however briefly, before Americans turn their focus to turkey lunches, festive cheer and contentious domestic politics.
But the trip comes as Afghan security forces struggle to beat back the Taliban, which has been on the offensive since the withdrawal of US-led NATO combat troops at the end of 2014 and maintains control over swathes of the country.
Later asked by reporters whether the US would consider raising its military presence in the country, Pence demurred.
“That will be a decision for the commander in chief in the days ahead, but again this is… not just personnel,” he said.
“You know, I said today that bureaucrats don’t win wars, soldiers do. And one of the things that you have seen in President Trump, as commander in chief, is he has empowered our battlefield commanders to make real-time decisions,” he continued, citing successes against the IS in Iraq and Syria.