Despite better cooperation between the Pakistani and Afghan military in taking on the Taliban and its allies, Islamabad needs to press the Taliban harder to come to the negotiating table, the commander of U.S. Central Command said on Thursday.
Army Gen. Joseph Votel added the time was ripe for such a move. He was particularly encouraged by the recently-agreed upon cease-fire between the Afghan government under President Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban marking the end of Ramadan and movements toward peace inside and outside Afghanistan, he said speaking to Pentagon reporters via teleconference. The ceasefire marked a first in recent Afghan history.
As for steps Islamabad needs to take to further the peace process along, he said they needed either to expel or arrest the terrorists who operate across the mountainous frontier. “We’ve seen Pakistan move in some of the ways we’ve asked them to do,” but he called upon them to make those moves in a strategic manner in eliminating safe havens and not piece-meal raids.
Votel is in weekly communication with Pakistan’s military leaders about their domestic situation and Afghanistan.
He also expressed “cautious optimism” that the administration’s South Asia Strategy based on changing conditions rather than holding to firm timelines for withdrawal of American forces is showing results.
Votel noted progress being made inside the Afghan security forces in “keeping the pressure” on the Taliban and the Islamic State and also the renewed commitment by NATO through 2024 and other partners including the Persian Gulf states to professionalize the national police and expand the operational capabilities of the army and air force.
He praised the government for “replacing older leadership” in the security forces and “replacing them with [younger leaders] who “have been associated without modern training” in counterterrorism, modern policing, combined arms operations and respect for civilians.
Votel said more than 9 million Afghans — 70 percent of the eligible population — have registered to vote in the upcoming elections.
Afghans and the Taliban insurgents are taking steps toward peace, he added. “Peace marches and local and international [Islamic religious leaders] condemnations of the insurgency, broad diplomatic support of the Afghan-led peace process” plus the cease-fire were all hopeful signs.
But he would not set out a timeline when the fighting in Afghanistan or Syria or Iraq would end.
“Much work and fighting remain” with the Taliban and Islamic State, Votel said in opening remarks, referring to Afghanistan. The United States has been militarily engaged in Afghanistan since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
On Syria, after saying he has received no new instructions on cooperating with the Russian forces there, Votel said, “We’re moving to … consolidation of gains” against the Islamic State and working for a political solution to bring the multi-sided civil war to an end under U.N. guidance.
He called Russian’s support of the regime of Bashar al-Assad as “exacerbating” the human disaster on the ground in Syria — from chemical weapons attacks on civilians to creating a massive aid and refugee crisis caused by the fighting that has been going on since 2011.
Across the Syrian border, Votel noted how the Pesh Merga Kurdish forces worked successfully with Iraqi security forces in stabilizing portions of the country where the Islamic State showed evidence of re-surfacing.
“We’ve always acknowledged the networks [of terrorists in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq] will go to ground. …It’s important to apply pressure” to stabilize and secure areas they once controlled.