US asks Pakistan to 'line up' in pressuring Taliban

Blinken asks Islamabad to deny legitimacy to Afghan interim govt for now: Pakistan’s policies have been detrimental to many of Washington’s interests: UN chief pleads for engagement with Taliban

By: AFP      Published: 07:54 AM, 14 Sep, 2021
US asks Pakistan to 'line up' in pressuring Taliban
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies virtually in House Foreign Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill.–AFP

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called on Pakistan to deny legitimacy to the Taliban unless they meet international demands, acknowledging concerns that Islamabad has supported the hardliners from Afghanistan.

Testifying before Congress on the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, Blinken heard from lawmakers across party lines who pushed for a harder line on Pakistan, an uneasy partner of Washington over the 20-year war.

"What we have to look at is an insistence that every country, to include Pakistan, make good on the expectations that the international community has of what is required of a Taliban-led government if it's to receive any legitimacy of any kind or any support," Blinken told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

He said the priorities included ensuring the Taliban let out people who want to leave Afghanistan and respect the rights of women, girls and minorities, as well as adhere to promises that the country not again become "a haven for outward-directed terror."

"So Pakistan needs to line up with a broad majority of the international community in working toward those ends and in upholding those expectations," Blinken said.

Blinken said Pakistan's policies have been "on many occasions detrimental to our interests, on other occasions in support of those interests."

Pakistan's actions have "involved hedging its bets constantly about the future of Afghanistan," he added. 

"It's one that's involved harbouring members of the Taliban, including the Haqqanis," Blinken said, referring to the group designated as terrorists by Washington that is now part of the caretaker government.

Democratic Representative Joaquin Castro, one of several lawmakers to criticize Pakistan, called on the United States to consider removing its status as a major non-NATO ally, which gives Islamabad privileged access to US weaponry.

Pakistan, a Cold War ally of the United States, quickly pledged cooperation in the US-led "war on terror" after the September 11, 2001, attacks. But Pakistan has frequently viewed Afghanistan through the prism of its historic rivalry with India, a major partner to the fallen Western-backed government.

Irate lawmakers

During the testimony on Monday, Antony Blinken insisted the Biden administration had prepared for worst-case scenarios in Afghanistan, as irate lawmakers accused the White House of presiding over a historic disaster.

The famously even-tempered top US diplomat stayed cool as he faced the toughest grilling of his career at the first congressional hearing on President Joe Biden's end to the 20-year war, which brought a swift victory by the Taliban.

As rival Republicans raised their voices, waved pictures of slain soldiers and occasionally demanded he resign, Blinken repeatedly noted that former president Donald Trump had set the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

"We inherited a deadline; we did not inherit a plan," Blinken told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

After Trump's February 2020 deal with the Taliban and drawdown of US troops, the Islamist movement was in the "strongest military position it had been since 9/11," the attacks 20 years ago that prompted America's longest war, Blinken said.

Blinken said the Biden administration was "intensely focused" on the safety of Americans and had been "constantly assessing" how long the Western-backed government could survive.

"Even the most pessimistic assessments did not predict that government forces in Kabul would collapse while US forces remained," Blinken said.

"Nonetheless, we planned and exercised a wide range of contingencies," he added.

"The evacuation itself was an extraordinary effort -- under the most difficult conditions imaginable -- by our diplomats, by our military, by our intelligence professionals."

- 'Unmitigated disaster' -

Republican lawmakers, seeing a vulnerability for Biden, have portrayed the pullout as chaotic and accused the president of abandoning Americans to the fate of the Taliban.

"This was an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions," said Representative Mike McCaul, the top Republican on the committee.

"I never thought in my lifetime that I would see an unconditional surrender to the Taliban," he added.

Accusing the administration of "betrayal" of Afghan allies, McCaul pointed out that the Taliban's caretaker government included figures such as Sirajuddin Haqqani, whose arrest is sought by Washington on terrorism allegations. 

"We are now at the mercy of the Taliban's reign of terror," McCaul said, warning of a "dark veil of sharia law" as the Taliban reinstitute their draconian treatment of women.

Republicans noted that last year's agreement with the Taliban -- signed in the presence of Blinken's predecessor Mike Pompeo -- had set conditions for the withdrawal.

"You can't blame the Trump administration for your failure," said Representative Greg Steube.

"Your administration in the White House was seeing in real time what was happening in Afghanistan and you did absolutely nothing to stop it," he said.

Blinken, however, suggested that the Taliban violated the accord through their "relentless march," even as the Trump administration pressed the former Afghan government to free battle-hardened militants.

Blinken said that the new administration's planning made it possible to draw down the embassy within 48 hours, and secure the airport and start evacuations within 72 hours.

The United States and its allies ultimately evacuated 124,000 people out of Afghanistan, one of the largest airlifts in history.

The administration says only around 100 US citizens remain and that all had been contacted repeatedly by US diplomats, with some leaving after the withdrawal in line with promises by the Taliban.

Blinken said there was "no evidence that staying longer would have made the Afghan security forces or the Afghan government any more resilient or self-sustaining."

"If 20 years and hundreds of billions of dollars in support, equipment and training did not suffice, why would another year, another five, another 10?"

Representative Gregory Meeks, the Democrat who led the committee, accused Republicans of having been silent when Trump and Pompeo pursued the same policies on Afghanistan.

"Disentangling ourselves from Afghanistan was never going to be easy," Meeks said.

"I would welcome hearing what exactly a smooth withdrawal from a messy, chaotic 20-year war looks like," he said. "I don't believe one exists."

UN chief pleads for 'lifeline' for Afghanistan

UN chief Antonio Guterres on Monday urged the international community to engage with the Taliban and to provide a "lifeline" of desperately needed aid to Afghans, as the first foreign commercial flight left Kabul -- a hopeful sign for those still trying to leave the country.

Guterres was in Geneva to host a donor conference aimed at raising hundreds of millions of dollars for the violence-torn country, which was taken over by the Taliban last month in a lightning offensive that took retreating US troops by surprise.

In all, UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said donor countries pledged a total of $1.2 billion in aid, but did not say how much had been earmarked for the UN's flash appeal for $600 million to fund emergency assistance for the rest of this year.

The flash appeal was launched amid fears that malnutrition is looming for many, and perhaps even starvation, with mass displacement in the country and winter fast approaching.

Guterres said he believed aid could be used as leverage with the Islamist extremists to exact improvements on human rights, amid fears of a return to the brutal rule that characterised the first Taliban regime from 1996 to 2001.

"It is impossible to provide humanitarian assistance inside Afghanistan without engaging with the de facto authorities," the UN secretary-general told ministers attending the Geneva talks.

"It is very important to engage with the Taliban at the present moment."

Guterres urged nations to "find ways to allow for an injection of cash in the Afghan economy" in order to avert an outright collapse that would have "devastating consequences" for Afghanistan and the wider region.

"I don't think that if the de facto authorities of a country misbehave, the solution is to do a collective punishment to their people," he said.

- 'Dismayed' -

The Taliban have promised a milder form of rule this time around, but have moved swiftly to crush dissent, including firing in the air to disperse recent protests by women calling for the right to education and work.

UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet said she was "dismayed by the lack of inclusivity of the so-called caretaker cabinet, which includes no women and few non-Pashtuns".

She added there was "well-founded" information showing the Taliban had gone against their commitment to a more moderate brand of government, pointing in particular to "credible allegations of reprisal killings" of former Afghan security forces.

- 'I am sad and happy' -

With the situation in Kabul far from settled, the departure of the first international commercial flight since the Taliban takeover offered Afghans still wanting to flee a glimmer of hope.

A Pakistan International Airlines jet landed in Kabul Monday before making a return flight to Islamabad with about 70 people on board -- mostly Afghans who were relatives of staffers with international organisations, according to airport ground staff.

"I am being evacuated. My final destination is Tajikistan," said a 35-year-old World Bank evacuee, who did not want to give her name.

"I will come back here only if the situation allows women to work and move freely."

- 'Hopeful day' -

Kabul's international airport was trashed after US-led forces finished a chaotic evacuation of more than 120,000 people, and the Taliban have since scrambled to resume operations with technical assistance from Qatar and other nations.

Qatar Airways operated several charter flights out of Kabul last week, carrying mostly foreigners and Afghans who missed out on the evacuation.

An Afghan airline resumed domestic services on September 3.

But the resumption of commercial flights will be a key test for the Taliban, who have repeatedly promised to allow Afghans with the right documents to leave the country freely.

"It's a hopeful day. Maybe other airlines will see this and decide to come back," said one airport employee.

A PIA spokesman it was too soon to say how frequently flights between Kabul and Islamabad would operate.

Many NATO nations admitted that they had run out of time to evacuate thousands of at-risk Afghans before the US withdrawal deadline, and some Afghans who helped foreign powers during the 20-year US-led occupation fear they will be targeted.

But the Taliban insist they have granted a general amnesty to everyone -- including the security forces they fought against.

- Baradaer is ‘alive’ -

Also on Monday, Taliban co-founder and now deputy prime minister Abdul Ghani Baradar released an audio statement saying he was alive and well after news of his supposed demise went viral on social media.