Senior US diplomat heads to Pakistan after Taliban takeover of Afghanistan

Washington has long accused Islamabad of playing both sides in Afghanistan

US deputy secretary of State Wendy Sherman. Photo: AFP
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A top US official is travelling to Pakistan this week to press Prime Minister Imran Khan's government to take action against all extremist groups, after the Taliban seized power in neighbouring Afghanistan in August.

"We seek a strong partnership with Pakistan on counter-terrorism and we expect sustained action against all militant and terrorist groups without distinction," US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman said of her October 7-8 trip to Islamabad.

"Both of our countries have suffered terribly from the scourge of terrorism and we look forward to co-operative efforts to eliminate all regional and global terrorist threats."

Ms Sherman's trip, which includes stops in Uzbekistan and India, comes as the US looks to retain some type of military capability in Afghanistan after hurriedly withdrawing all of its forces at the end of a 20-year war.

The Pentagon has spoken of "over-the-horizon" capabilities against ISIS and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan but its options are limited when launching air strikes from ships in the Arabian Sea.

Pakistan has long frustrated the US with its approach to the Taliban, having been accused by Washington of playing both sides for the past 20 years.

Islamabad last month initiated talks with the group for an "inclusive" government in Afghanistan, a step welcomed by Ms Sherman.

"We look to Pakistan to play a critical role in enabling that outcome," she said.

Mr Khan, a longtime critic of US military campaigns, said last week that his government had opened talks with the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) about laying down their arms.

"Some of the Pakistani Taliban groups actually want to talk to our government for some peace, for some reconciliation," he said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told US legislators last month that Pakistan has myriad interests conflicting with America's.

Pakistan's foreign policy "is one that is involved hedging its bets constantly about the future of Afghanistan, it's one that's involved harbouring members of the Taliban", Mr Blinken said.

Pakistan was just one of three countries to recognise the 1996-2001 hard-line Taliban regime but after the September 11 attacks in the US, Washington quickly persuaded Islamabad into backing the American-led invasion of Afghanistan.

The US has often said parts of Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency continued to covertly back the Taliban, claims Islamabad denies.

Complicating matters for Ms Sherman, Mr Khan said the Taliban had "broken the shackles of slavery" after the US defeat in Afghanistan, and that the US would eventually have to recognise the group.

“Sooner or later they will have to. At the moment, as you can see in the Senate hearing, in the media, there is shock and confusion in the US," he said.

Although stopping short of recognising the regime, Mr Khan urged world leaders to engage more with the Taliban and provide economic support to Afghanistan.

The US and the rest of the West are reluctant to recognise the regime and the UN rejected the group's bid to speak during last month's General Assembly.

Mr Blinken told US legislators that Pakistan must deny legitimacy to the Taliban unless they meet international demands.

They include respecting the rights of women and girls and ensuring that Afghanistan does not 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," Mr Blinken said.

- Agencies contributed to this report

Updated: October 05, 2021, 9:02 PM