Foreign Office claim
The Foreign Office spokesman, Dr Muhammad Faisal, chose a novel way to make a major revelation when he tweeted that Pakistan had handed over 27 Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network suspects to Kabul in November 2017. In a follow up tweet, he said Pakistan was exerting pressure on the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network to prevent them from using our soil for any terrorist activity in Afghanistan. The disclosure came hours before US President Donald Trump was to deliver his State of the Union address to Congress. Whether the timing was fortuitous or intended to stave off any adverse presidential remarks about Pakistan in the context of the war in Afghanistan is not known. No details were provided by Dr Faisal about who these suspects were and how and under what arrangements they were handed over. It is logical to assume that the transfer took place just before US Defence Secretary James Mattis’s visit to Islamabad on December 4, 2017. It is significant that the so far secret transfer did not have any impact on US perceptions about Pakistan’s role vis-à-vis Afghanistan. It is also not certain whether the novel use of Twitter was inspired by Donald Trump’s habit or whether this is the way important statements are henceforth to be received from the Foreign Office. If so, it is worth noting that if the transfer took place on the eve of the US Defence Secretary’s visit and its revelation on the eve of the US President’s State of the Union address, does this betray a pattern of trying to stave off criticism from Washington at critical moments? If this is presumed to have a grain of truth, has the Foreign Office woken up to the fact that such well timed actions/statements in and by themselves have made little difference? In any case, token transfers of militants are unlikely to dent the wall of suspicion and mistrust that has arisen between Washington and Islamabad over the years about Pakistan’s role in the Afghan conflict. This is particularly true in the present context since Kabul has suffered three horrible terrorist attacks in one week, two claimed by the Taliban and one by Islamic State. The terrible toll these attacks have exacted has soured even further relations between Islamabad on the one hand and Washington and Kabul on the other.
There has also emerged since Trump assumed office a disjuncture over the end game in Afghanistan. Whereas Islamabad still harps on the theme of an Afghan-led, Afghan owned negotiated end to the war, Trump has decided after the recent horrible attacks to pursue a policy of fighting before talking, i.e. defeating the Taliban on the battlefield before opening the door to talks with them. Despite the announcement by Trump of sending 4,000 more US troops to Afghanistan and the greater use of air power to achieve that elusive goal, the attacks in Kabul and one in Jalalabad show the limitations of this approach. In his rage and frustration at the shadowy nature of the war against the Taliban insurgency, Trump may well put the economic and financial squeeze on Pakistan through the multilateral lending agencies where the US enjoys enormous clout and take the war to Pakistani soil through drone attacks like the one recently in Kurram Agency. What should give us pause for thought is the fact that our government made no visible effort to revisit its Afghanistan policy despite knowing that Donald Trump was likely to prove a different kettle of fish than his predecessors George Bush or Barack Obama. Instead, we are still stuck in the groove of denying the presence of Afghan Taliban or Haqqani Network safe havens on our soil while beating the victim’s drum of our human and material losses in the war on terror and our claimed clearance of the tribal areas of all militant presence. This is a narrative that convinces fewer and fewer in the world, let alone in the US. There is still time to utilise the softer messages received of late from US officials to revisit our strategic depth follies and cooperate in the elimination of Afghan terrorists’ presence on our soil while nevertheless striving for a negotiated settlement of the long running Afghan conflict, in that country’s, ours, the region’s and the world’s best interests.