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Afghans praise Trump’s hard line on Pakistan

Supporters of Pakistani religious groups burn a representation of an American flag at a rally to condemn a tweet by U.S. President Donald Trump, in Karachi, Pakistan, Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018.

FAREED KHAN/AP

By CHAD GARLAND AND ZUBAIR BABAKARKHAIL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 2, 2018

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghans welcomed President Donald Trump’s accusation on Twitter that Pakistan offers only “lies & deceit” in return for U.S. aid, saying that the statement builds on what some see as positive momentum in America’s 16-year struggle to defeat the Taliban.

Early Monday, Trump wrote in his first tweet of the year that the United States had “foolishly given” more than $33 billion in aid over the past 15 years to Pakistan, which returned the favor with “nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools.”

“They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”

The tweet, which underscores the administration’s frustrations with Islamabad, was happy news for Afghans, said Javed Hamim Kakar, senior editor at Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. A local TV news channel hailed it as Afghans’ favorite Trump tweet.

U.S. and Afghan officials have long accused Pakistan of sheltering Taliban commanders and fighters in border areas, where the insurgents can rest, rearm and regroup.

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, writing on Twitter, greeted Trump’s remarks as “vindication that the war on terror is not in bombing Afghan villages and homes but in the sanctuaries beyond Afghanistan.”

Karzai proposed forming a regional coalition to pressure Pakistan “to bring peace to ... the entire region.”

While U.S. officials have said cooperation with Pakistan is critical to efforts in the region, the relationship has chilled since May 2011, when al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden was found living near a major military facility in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, where he had apparently enjoyed sanctuary for years.

A pillar of Trump’s new regional strategy calls for greater pressure on Islamabad to eliminate such havens. Pakistan “has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists,” the president said when announcing his strategy in August.

In a sign of that pressure, White House spokesman Raj Shah said Monday that the administration does not plan to spend $255 million in fiscal 2016 aid to Pakistan, CNN reported. The money has been held back since August, pending greater action by Islamabad to fight terrorism.

In July, the Pentagon also withheld $50 million in aid after Defense Secretary James Mattis declined to certify that Pakistan had done enough to fight the Taliban’s brutal Haqqani network, which officials say also enjoys sanctuary in that country.

Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, views the insurgents’ ability to exploit such sanctuaries as the single greatest threat to the coalition campaign there.

Afghans have long argued that the war is not an “internal war” but a regional one, said Shahla Farid, professor of political science at Kabul University. Pakistan is viewed at the top of the list of countries “feeding these terrorists.”

She said Trump’s message calling out Islamabad builds on a sense that the regional fight against terrorism is moving in a positive direction.

But Pakistani officials have responded harshly to Trump’s tweet, with Foreign Minister Khwaja Mohammad Asif saying it was a sign that the president was disappointed in the U.S. “defeat in Afghanistan” and that the apparent threat of cutting aid was meaningless.

“We have already told the U.S. that we will not do more, so Trump’s ‘no more’ does not hold any importance,” Asif said.

He also rejected the idea that the U.S. had given more than $33 billion in aid to the country since 2002, saying the U.S. had reimbursed Pakistan for use of its land, roads and railroads.

The U.S. has depended on Pakistan’s seaports and airports to bring supplies and equipment into landlocked Afghanistan. It has also paid Islamabad to keep 100,000 troops deployed in northwest Pakistan.

Since 2002, Washington has paid about $14.5 billion to reimburse Pakistan for logistical and operational support, according to a Congressional Research Service report. About half of that was for food and ammunition.

The U.S. likely paid even more dearly because of Islamabad’s “two-faced policies,” said Kakar, the Pajhwok editor.

“If Pakistan had really cooperated, the fight in Afghanistan could end very soon and the U.S. would not have to sacrifice lots of soldiers and money,” he said.

Trump’s new strategy for South and Central Asia calls for more aggressive action against the Taliban, Islamic State and other insurgent groups. The U.S. recently sent 3,000 more servicemembers to the country, bringing the level to about 14,000, and the military plans to dramatically increase the number of troops advising Afghans at tactical levels.

Asif said the U.S. is making a mistake to do so.

“They are reinforcing their failure in Afghanistan by extending their military presence, but only a peaceful solution is possible,” he said. “It should instead try to negotiate with Taliban.”

U.S. officials have unsuccessfully sought Islamabad’s help in bringing the Taliban into peace talks with a four-nation group comprising representatives from Afghanistan, the United States, China and Pakistan.

In a video the Resolute Support mission tweeted Monday, Nicolson said efforts in 2018 would focus on “driving the enemy to the peace table” through military and social pressure on the Taliban “and, very importantly, diplomatic and other forms of pressure” on the group’s backers outside Afghanistan.

“In the face of this renewed pressure ... the Taliban cannot win,” Nicholson said.

garland.chad@stripes.com
Twitter: @chadgarland

 

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