- The Washington Times - Monday, January 22, 2018

Pakistan’s top diplomat lashed out at the Trump administration’s decision to withhold millions in foreign aid and military assistance to Islamabad over its suspected support for extremist militants in the region, saying Pakistan refuses to be the White House’s “scapegoat” for its failing Afghan war policy.

In his first public statements since the White House decision to sharply curtail bilateral security aid to the South Asian nation, Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S. Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry said Islamabad will not engage with Washington “in a transactional relationship” where diplomatic ties are defined by punitive actions driven by unsubstantiated rhetoric.

“We will not wholeheartedly take the blame” for the worsening situation in Afghanistan, Mr. Chaudhry said during a speech at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. Pakistan “is being scapegoated for the failures in Afghanistan,” he added.

His comments come weeks after U.S. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley announced plans to indefinitely suspend $225 million in foreign aid, accusing Islamabad of playing “a double game for years” with its selective support of certain Pakistani-based terror groups.

State Department officials followed up a week later, announcing their plans to block all bilateral security aid to the country.

The U.S. has given more than $30 billion in aid to Islamabad since 2001, much of it for military training and purchases of U.S.-made weaponry. The relationship has been tumultuous though, highlighted by the U.S. special forces mission in 2011 that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden at a hideout deep inside Pakistan.

President Trump’s new blueprint for the 17-year-old Afghan war, outlined last summer, had sharp words for Pakistan’s role in the conflict, demanding Islamabad crack down on terror groups inside its territory who were helping the Taliban insurgency.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters that Pakistan’s unwillingness to curb groups like Tehrik-i-Taliban, the Pakistani faction of the terror group, and the Haqqani Network forced the administration’s hand.

Pakistan has repeatedly denied claims of its support for terror groups, citing its own robust counterterrorism operations in the volatile federal tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistan border and the casualties its army has taken in anti-terror operations.

On Monday, Mr. Chaudhry took an even more direct shot at American-led security and stability efforts in Afghanistan, saying it was the lack of order and stable government there that was the root cause of the crisis.

“The tide of terrorism has been reversed” inside Pakistan, he said, adding stability in Afghanistan is the only way Islamabad can continue to capitalize on that progress. “Our gains will continue to be at risk … unless Afghanistan stabilizes.”

Pakistan’s security forces “have been breathing down [the terror groups’] necks” and limiting territory for safe havens where extremist groups can operate inside the country. Meanwhile, the U.S.-backed central government in Kabul can only keep 60 percent of Afghanistan out of the Taliban’s hands, the Pakistani diplomat noted.

Despite the harsh rhetoric, there are signs neither side is ready for a permanent break, particularly when Pakistan provides a key logistical route for U.S. forces and materiel into Afghanistan.

Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel and Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, head of Pakistan’s army, have remained in “continuous communication” in the weeks following the U.S. aid cut-off announcement.

“We value mutual understanding of interests and concerns that we need to consider and might lead to a positive path forward,” command spokesman Col. John Thomas said earlier this month.

Last week, acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Alice G. Wells met with Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua and members of the country’s National Security Council to discuss the Trump administration’s recent actions. During the meeting, Ms. Wells reiterated that Pakistan’s support remained critical to the success of the ongoing U.S. war in Afghanistan, according to official statement.

Mr. Chaudhry said Monday that the goal for the bilateral relationship is “not to apportion blame” for the problems in Afghanistan but “to finish up what was started” by defeating all extremist groups operating in the region.

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