Friday, November 21, 2014

Daily Times Editorial Nov 22, 2014

COAS’s visit Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif’s visit to the US has yielded interactions across the board and in depth with the policy movers and shakers of Washington. His meetings have included, amongst others, CENTCOM’s top brass, Department of Defence top officials, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, members of various Congress committees, etc. While the visit is still ongoing, it may be difficult to pronounce on its final outcome. However, interim conclusions can be drawn, based on the responses of General Sharif’s US interlocutors. But first the speech delivered by the COAS at a reception on Thursday by our Ambassador to the US, Jalil Abbas Jilani. General Sharif stated categorically that the Haqqani network, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and all other militant groups were being targeted without discrimination in the ongoing military operations in FATA in order to defeat terrorism squarely. He went on to assert that those who played football with the severed heads of our soldiers would not be spared. He assured his audience that Islamic State (IS) would not be allowed to set foot in Pakistan or Afghanistan. The context in which General Sharif felt it necessary to issue this clear message included the recent Pentagon report that accused Pakistan of still harbouring terrorists on its soil and the embarrassment caused by Advisor on National Security and Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz’s interview in which he questioned why Pakistan should target those who were not Pakistan’s but the US’s enemies. This aroused anger and criticism in Afghanistan and the US respectively, with the latter particularly incensed at any suggestion that the Haqqani network, considered mainly responsible for the deaths of 2,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan, could by any stretch of the imagination be considered ‘good’ Taliban by Pakistan. Of course the foreign office tried furiously to conduct damage control by saying Sartaj Aziz’s remarks were quoted out of context. Nevertheless, General Sharif had his work cut out for him in allaying any alarm or concern amongst his hosts regarding the issue. After all, quite irrespective of these recent reasons for concern, who does not know that Pakistan has offered safe havens and continues to host militants on its soil? Better to confront reservations about Pakistan’s policy head on rather than dissemble, particularly given the importance of the visit’s mission. As General Sharif and his spokesman, DG ISPR Major General Asim Bajwa have been at pains to emphasise, the visit should not be seen through the narrow, transactional prism of seeking military hardware, aid, etc (although reports say the possibility of the US transferring some of its hardware in Afghanistan to Pakistan is under discussion). The task General Sharif has set himself is to lay the foundations of a long-term relationship with the US. This includes military-to-military cooperation and the whole gamut of issues after withdrawal of the bulk of the US and NATO forces from Afghanistan by year’s end. Neither side would like a vacuum of power to emerge in Afghanistan that may be exploited by militant forces battling Kabul. Although General Sharif’s interactions have elicited positive vibes from the US administration, Congress and the military, the vexed question of Mulla Omar and his Taliban forces remains the unspoken of elephant in the room. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s recent visit to Islamabad has visibly improved the atmospherics between the two countries, at loggerheads virtually throughout the tenure of former president Hamid Karzai. Would the military establishment facilitate the process of rapprochement with the Afghan Taliban that Kabul wants? That would be a real test of the bonhomie on display when President Ghani was in Pakistan. Pakistan’s official position, particularly since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government came to power last year, has been to support an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led peace process. Although such a process and its success is clearly in the interests of both Afghanistan and Pakistan, not to mention the wider region and the world, Pakistan may be called upon to put its money where its mouth is in persuading Mulla Omar to engage with Kabul. As far as Pakistan’s current campaign against militants is concerned, General Raheel Sharif brings impressive credentials to the task of rooting out terrorism from Pakistan. He is considered the most prominent counterinsurgency General of the present army top brass, having trained troops for the task and written the counterinsurgency manual for the army. However, it should be noted that the COAS takes a holistic view of the struggle against terrorism, pointing out in his reception speech that the drive against terrorists was not confined to FATA but encompassed the whole country. That is particularly reassuring, given that observers have expressed reservations about the seeming weakness of the counter-terrorism aspect of the campaign.

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