LONDON: Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has warned the US that it risks fuelling terrorism in the region and undermining military efforts in Afghanistan if the Trump administration follows through with a threat to downgrade its relationship with Islamabad. Just days after the Financial Times revealed that the US was considering stripping Pakistan of its status as an ally because of a perceived failure to tackle terrorism.
Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said the hardline approach risked backfiring. In an interview with the FT he also threatened to drop the US as supplier of military aircraft to apply pressure on its ally. Pakistan currently buys F-16 fighter jets, which are made by American company Lockheed Martin and have become the mainstay of the Pakistani air force.
“We would like to buy more F16s, but we do have other options,” said Mr Abbasi adding; “We have a long relationship with both the French and the Chinese, and we have been developing the JF-17 alongside the Chinese, which in may ways meets or even exceeds the specifications of the F16.”
But while he did not go into detail about which other levers Pakistan might pull, others in Islamabad were clearer. One person close to the powerful Pakistani army said: “We could make it harder for the US to use supply routes through Pakistan to serve its troops in Afghanistan, and we could stop co-operating on drone attacks. That would make the war in Afghanistan a lot more difficult.”
Mr Abbasi said he found Washington’s Pakistan policy “confusing”, adding that he had to rely on media reports to find out what President Donald Trump’s plans were for the region. “The signals we get from Washington are confusing, but our message is very clear: we are committed to fighting terror and we will continue to fight terror,” Mr Abbasi said.
“All it will do [if the US downgrades Pakistan as an ally] is degrade our efforts to fight terror, and I am not sure if that will work for the US”, he cleared.
Just three weeks after Mr Abbasi took over, Mr Trump announced a reversal in the US approach to Afghanistan. Instead of continuing the gradual drawdown of troops started under former president Barack Obama, Mr Trump said he would maintain, if not increase troop levels.
During that speech, Mr Trump also criticised Pakistan, accusing it of not doing enough to tackle cross-border terrorism emanating from its own soil. Since then, many in the region have been trying to work out what the new US policy means in practice.
Mr Abbasi told the FT he thought the number of American troops was likely to increase from 8,400 today to 12,000-13,000. But he admitted he found it hard to get clear information from the Trump administration: “We mostly find these things out by reading them in the newspapers.”
Mr Abbasi also admitted the limitations of its operations, saying the bombers who killed more than 90 people in the attack in Kabul in May were likely to have come from Pakistan. “I don’t know all the details, but it seems three or four people crossed over the border. There was a vehicle which travelled from that area to Kabul and was parked in an embassy compound before it blew up,” he said. “We have 250,000 troops fighting there, but we don’t have control of the full area. [Militants] often cross the border from the other side and attack our people. If the Afghan army cannot control them, and US forces cannot control them, what are we supposed to do?”
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had said that more than 150 people have died as a result of the massive tanker-truck bombing that struck a busy Kabul neighborhood during rush hour on May 31. “More than 150 innocent Afghan sons and daughters were killed and more than 300 wounded were brought to hospitals with burns and amputations,” Ghani told a multinational peace conference in Kabul on June 6. Officials had previously put the death toll at 90, already making it the deadliest attack in the Afghan capital since the ouster of the Taliban from power in 2001. The blast occurred when a truck packed with what Ghani called “military-grade” explosives detonated in Kabul’s diplomatic quarter.