ISLAMABAD: Days after the White House accused Pakistan of continuing to harbor terrorists on its soil, the top US commander in Afghanistan claimed that the United States “knows the Afghan Taliban leadership is in Quetta and Peshawar”.
The allegation elicited a sharp reaction from Islamabad, which has been fuming over the US president’s harsh remarks, with top government ministers calling upon the US to stop blaming Pakistan for its failure in Afghanistan.
John W. Nicholson, who has been commanding the US forces in Afghanistan since March last year, told Afghan media outlet Tolo News on Saturday that Washington was aware of the Afghan Taliban leadership’s presence in Peshawar and Quetta, adding that the US military would continue to put pressure on Taliban sanctuaries inside and outside Afghanistan.
“The Quetta shura, Peshawar shura — these shuras are identified by cities inside Pakistan; we know Afghan Taliban leaders are in these areas. Support for terrorists and insurgents has to be reduced — [it]has to be stopped,” Gen Nicholson said in the interview.
Gen Nicholson claims Afghan Taliban leadership hiding in Quetta, Peshawar; ministers say US should stop blaming Pakistan for its own failures in Afghanistan
According to Gen Nicholson, the matter of alleged terrorist sanctuaries was being addressed “in private” by the Pakistan and US governments. He said that Washington’s new policy for the region was not time-based, rather it relied on the fulfillment of certain conditions. “It is our mandate to put military pressure on the Taliban,” he said, adding that Washington sought a peaceful solution in Afghanistan.
But turning the tables, Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal told Dawn that the Taliban were using Afghanistan as the launch pad for their operations, both inside and outside Pakistan.
He said the Taliban had no need to hide in Pakistan, since they held more than 40 per cent of Afghanistan. “If they have control over so much land and resources in Afghanistan, it means they have hideouts there, not in Pakistan,” he said.
The minister said Pakistani authorities had been conducting comprehensive security operations in different parts of the country for four years and had cleared a large area, including North Waziristan.
Mr Iqbal said Washington itself had stated that they would acknowledge the efforts of Pakistani forces if they managed to clear North Waziristan of terrorists.
Pakistan, he said, had made the commitment that it would not allow any group to use its soil against any other country, including Afghanistan. “Pakistan is fully committed to rooting out terrorism and no other country can match us in terms of the number of sacrifices made in the war on terror,” he added.
Separately, Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif said the US should refrain from blaming its 16 years of failures in Afghanistan on Pakistan.
“America used Pakistan as its ally, but Pakistan suffered unbearable losses in the war on terror. If the US doesn’t trust Pakistan, it should make preparations to repatriate the Afghan refugees Pakistan has been hosting for nearly 35 years,” he told Geo News on Sunday.
Mr Asif said Pakistan had been a trusted ally of the US for 70 years and had borne many direct and indirect losses due to this alliance. “We want to clear misunderstandings with the US by maintaining this relationship.”
He stressed that peace in Afghanistan was important for Pakistan too, which was why Islamabad was helping the US in trying to find a solution to the Afghan issue.
The foreign minister, who scrapped a planned visit to Washington following US President Donald Trump’s remarks about Pakistan, said that over 90pc of the attacks in Pakistan were carried out from Afghanistan and demanded US assistance in installing a border fence.
He also alleged that Afghan soldiers were selling American arms and ammunition to the Taliban.
Gen Nicholson’s statement also prompted a reaction from the provincial governments of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.
Shah Farman, spokesperson for the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s (PTI) provincial government in KP, told Dawn that Pakistan, especially his province, had been afflicted by terrorist activities of the Taliban. “How does the US know the whereabouts of Taliban? Have these Taliban been sent to Pakistan by the US?” he asked.
He said the US always alleged that Pakistan was sheltering the Haqqani network. “Is the US taking about the Haqqani network whose leader is still in America and was involved in the illegal issuance of visas to Americans,” he asked, in a snide reference to former Pakistani envoy Husain Haqqani.
The former ambassador was recently disowned by his own PPP after he wrote an article claiming that the PPP government facilitated the stationing of US agents in Pakistan.
Mr Farman was of the opinion that Pakistan had paid a very high price for restoring peace in Afghanistan, adding that as an ally, it was the responsibility of the US to share information regarding the whereabouts of the Taliban in Peshawar, if they indeed had any such intelligence.
Balochistan Home Minister Mir Sarfaraz Ahmed Bugti also rejected Gen Nicholson’s claim on Sunday.
“There is no presence of Afghan Taliban leaders in Quetta and other parts of Balochistan,” Mr Bugti told Dawn. However, he said that a large number of Afghan refugees were still living in Quetta and other areas of the province.
Mr Bugti said that while the government of Pakistan enjoyed a complete writ over the entire country, a large chunk of Afghanistan was still under Taliban control. “When the Taliban have such a large part of Afghanistan in their control, why would the Afghan Taliban leadership risk living in Pakistan?” He said the government had repeatedly announced that it would not allow anyone to use its territory against any country, adding: “Our forces are present at each and every corner of the border.”
Referring to the several thousand Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, he took a sarcastic jibe at Gen Nicholson, saying: “If the US commander stationed in Afghanistan considers them Afghan Taliban, I can’t say anything.”
Despite their political differences, both the government and the opposition seemed to be on the same page when it came to US posturing on the Afghan issue. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) also accused the US administration of blaming its failures in Afghanistan on Islamabad, and urged that a ‘verifiable mechanism’ be devised to address cross-border allegations from both sides.
PPP spokesperson Farhatullah Babar said that both President Trump and Gen Nicholson’s statements indicated that the US wanted to blame all its failed policies on Pakistan.
“Pakistan claims that Mullah Fazalullah is in Afghanistan and attacking Pakistan from there, while the Afghan government said Mullah Akhtar Mansour was in Pakistan and managing terrorist attacks from here,” he said.
The PPP spokesperson urged all stakeholders to reactivate the quadrilateral group of Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and Tajikistan, which may play an effective role in addressing the misunderstandings between stakeholders.
PTI leader Shireen Mazari also rejected the US commander’s claims.
“So now Gen Nicholson targets Pakistan again as ground is being readied for attack on Pakistan. Why are we hosting a middle-rank State Department official?” she tweeted, referring to the planned visit of Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells.
Although Ms Wells was due in Islamabad next week, a statement from the Foreign Office on Sunday said the US delegation’s visit had been “postponed until a mutually-convenient time” at the request of the government of Pakistan.