US Defence Secretary nominee Mark Esper has said Pakistan had taken initial and promising steps against anti-Indian groups, adding that he would use all possible tools to promote a change in Islamabad’s strategic approach to the region.
Esper said the presidents South Asia Strategy recognises Pakistan as a key partner in advancing US interests in the region, including developing a political settlement in Afghanistan, defeating the Al-Qaeda and the ISIS-K, providing logistical access and enhancing regional stability.
“We have seen Pakistan take some constructive steps on Afghan reconciliation. Pakistan has also taken initial, promising steps against anti-Indian groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, which threaten regional stability,” Esper told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
“It is difficult to assess whether the security assistance suspension itself has driven these constructive actions, or whether progress on Afghan reconciliation and the escalation following the Pulwama terrorist attack have also influenced Pakistans calculations,” Esper noted in a written response to questions submitted ahead of his confirmation hearing.
Esper said he would advocate for the Department of Defense to maintain the right set of tools and authorities to maintain decision space and flexibility in America’s policy approach, in order to maintain a “bridge back” for Pakistan.
“If confirmed, I would aim to make use of all of the tools at our disposal to promote a change in Pakistans strategic approach to the region,” he said.
Assistance and operational reimbursements like Coalition Support Funds (CSF) and International Military Education and Training (IMET), which are currently suspended, may be useful to reinforce positive actions Pakistan takes in response to US requests related to terrorism, militant sanctuaries and nuclear programs.
“However, the 2018 suspension of security assistance remains in place,” he said. “My objective would be to maintain decision space and preserve the defence relationship, including select military-to-military exchanges, between the United States and Pakistan, even as we urge Pakistan to take action on US requests.”
Noting that the threat of terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies emanating from Afghanistan remains its primary challenge, he said the country had made great improvements in their capabilities.
Esper added that but more improvement was required barring a political solution to the conflict that denies terrorists the use of Afghanistan as a safe haven.
According to him, an enduring peace settlement can only result from direct negotiations among Afghans, including the Taliban, the government, and representatives of all political groups as well as civil society.
“The US Government is taking a regional approach to the conflict, noting the importance of garnering support from neighbours like Pakistan, while deterring other regional actors, such as Russia and Iran, from serving as spoilers to the peace process,” he added.