By Arul LouisNew York, Jan 22 : President Joe Biden’s Defence Secretary-nominee Lloyd Austin has said that Pakistan’s actions against anti-Indian terrorist groups are “incomplete” and that he will press Islamabad to stop giving them sanctuary.
In written replies to questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee, he said, “If confirmed, I will press Pakistan to prevent its territory from being used as a sanctuary for militants and violent extremist organizations.”
Austin who needs the US Senate confirmation to be the defence secretary, provided written answers to questions from the Committee ahead of its hearings held earlier this week.
Both the Senate and the House of Representative voted on Thursday to give him a waiver from a US law that prohibits retired military officials from becoming defence secretaries for seven years after their retirement.Austin retired only in 2016.
One of the Committee questions asked if there were changes in Islamabad’s cooperation with Washington since it withheld security assistance in 2018.
He wrote, “Pakistan has also taken steps against anti-Indian groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), although this progress is incomplete.
But he said, “Many factors in addition to the security assistance suspension may impact Pakistan’s cooperation, including Afghanistan negotiations and the dangerous escalation following the Pulwama terrorist attack.”
Austin may be implying that the aftermath of the Pulwama attack in February 2019 had an influence on Pakistan.
At least 40 Indian security personnel were killed in the Pulwama terrorist attack in February 2019.
Tensions escalated between the neighbours when Indian Air Force jets bombed a camp in Balakot run by JeM, which claimed it was behind the attack.
An Indian MiG-21 aircraft was shot down by Pakistan and its pilot was captured and released.
The JeM attack in India was condemned by the US and several countries as well as the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
Asked what “tools and options” the US had to stop Pakistan giving sanctuaries to “militants and violent extremist organisations”, he said that he would press that country, but noted, “Pakistan is a sovereign nation.”
He added, “Continuing to build relationships with Pakistan’s military will provide openings for the United States and Pakistan to cooperate on key issues.”
Under former President Donald Trump, the US had cut its troops in Afghanistan while negotiating a political settlement with the Taliban, giving its patron Pakistan a pivotal role in the peace process.
Austin acknowledged this, writing, “Pakistan will play an important role in any political settlement in Afghanistan.”
This makes the US dependent on Islamabad and limits the extent of its actions against it, which he implied.
“Pakistan is an essential partner in any peace process in Afghanistan.If confirmed, I will encourage a regional approach that garners support from neighbors like Pakistan, while also deterring regional actors, from serving as spoilers to the Afghanistan peace process,” Austin said.
“I will focus on our shared interests which include training future Pakistan military leaders through the use of International Military Education and Training (IMET) funds,” he said.
The IMET cooperation was blocked in January 2018 by Trump when he suspended defence programmes for Pakistan.
But in late 2019, he approved the resumption of IMET, while keeping most of the $2 billion programme on hold.
Austin has experience of working in Afghanistan and with Pakistan.
He was the commander of a joint task force of the US and its allies during 2003-05 in Afghanistan.
“We also need to work with Pakistan to defeat al Qaeda and the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) and to enhance regional stability,” Austin said.
(Arul Louis can be reached at [email protected]