Pakistan's army chief seeks stable Afghanistan

Soldiers in the Pakistani army, led by Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, take part in an exercise near Multan.
Soldiers in the Pakistani army, led by Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, take part in an exercise near Multan. (Khalid Tanveer/associated Press)
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By Pamela Constable
Tuesday, February 2, 2010

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Pakistan's army chief said Monday that his country wants a "peaceful, stable and friendly" Afghanistan as its western neighbor and that achieving this goal would guarantee Pakistan the "strategic depth" it once sought by supporting the Islamist Taliban regime in Kabul.

Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, in a rare meeting with foreign journalists at army headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, said that Pakistan is eager to help the elected government in Afghanistan become capable of defending the country and that his army would like to help the United States train recruits for the new Afghan National Army.

Pakistan and Afghanistan have a history of tense relations and mutual grievances, and their leaders have often accused each other of fomenting Islamist insurgency. But now both countries are facing sustained extremist violence, and Kiyani said Pakistan has suffered even more attacks than Afghanistan.

In an informal presentation that drew on material from an address he delivered to NATO officials in Brussels last week, Kiyani listed Pakistan's multiple contributions to the war in Afghanistan, including logistical support for U.S. supply lines and military operations along the Afghan border.

"We can't have Talibanization. We want to remain modern and progressive," Kiyani told reporters in a windowless conference room. "We cannot wish for Afghanistan what we don't wish for Pakistan." Pakistan once backed the Taliban regime in Kabul but abruptly abandoned it at Washington's request after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Kiyani's wide-ranging remarks seemed aimed at refuting the American demand that Pakistan "do more" to fight Islamist terrorism at home, as well as criticism that it is reluctant to turn against the Afghan Taliban in case it ends up in power after Western forces leave the country.

Kiyani briefly touched on proposals for reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban, saying the group's fighters should be "weaned and reintegrated" into society. But he described most Afghans as "sitting at a crossroad, waiting to see who is winning and losing" before deciding whether to back the insurgents or the state.

The army chief said Pakistan has no desire to control Afghanistan, adding, "No one has ever been able to control Afghanistan in history." He said the army wants to "get more involved" in Afghanistan, but only as military trainers, and he noted that it could take years to build a professional army and officer corps there.

"We want to have strategic depth in Afghanistan, but that does not imply controlling it," he said. "If we have a peaceful, stable and friendly Afghanistan, automatically we will have our strategic depth because our western border will be secure, and we will not be looking at two fronts."

Pakistan has one of the largest and best-equipped conventional armies in the world, with a force of nearly half a million. But the military was built to fight the country's neighboring rival, Hindu-majority India, and has had little experience with guerrilla conflict.

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