COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa while addressing the Chiefs of Defence Conference in Kabul attempted to reassure Kabul and Washington that Pakistan’s counterterrorism operations are targeting elements carrying out attacks in Afghanistan. In turn he called for reciprocal cooperation against elements carrying out attacks inside Pakistan while holed up on Afghan soil. The conference was attended by the top military brass of the US, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, i.e. the occupying power and almost all of Afghanistan’s neighbours. Not surprisingly, given the state of relations between Tehran and Washington, Iran was the notable exception. General Bajwa went on to claim that all terrorist sanctuaries had been eliminated from Pakistan’s soil and residual terrorists who meld into the 2.7 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan combined with border security coordination inadequacies are being targeted through the ongoing Operation Radd-ul-Fasad. The conference is part of efforts to develop a regional counterterrorism strategy, check the growing presence of Islamic State (IS) retreating from Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan and attempt to eliminate narco-trafficking believed to be the main source of funding for the Afghan Taliban. Whether, however, General Bajwa’s reiteration of Pakistan’s mantra will persuade the conference or the wider world remains a moot point. Pakistan currently suffers from a credibility deficit when it makes the claims General Bajwa did. The Afghan Taliban and the deadly Haqqani network have been hosted on Pakistani soil since the Taliban government was ousted by the US invasion in 2001. It has been axiomatic since then that the Quetta Shura and Haqqani network’s presence in FATA would be impossible without the support of our military and security establishment. The actions General Bajwa musters as arguments in his narrative ‘exported’ Pakistan’s Taliban problem to Afghan soil through Operation Zarb-e-Azb in FATA, but no independent observer or analyst is convinced that this or subsequent military operations eliminated the safe havens inside Pakistan that the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network have enjoyed for the last 17 years. Pakistan’s demand to the US to provide it ‘actionable intelligence’ is derided on the grounds that no one knows better than the Pakistani military establishment where the Afghan insurgents are holed up inside Pakistan. In other words, Pakistan’s narrative tends to run aground on lingering suspicions of Islamabad continuing its proxy war inside Afghanistan, whether for reasons of the discredited strategic depth concept or to hedge its bets in the Afghan endgame.
Pakistan may have been able to get away with its duality of policy so far, but wiser counsel points in the direction of these long nurtured chickens coming home to roost now. US President Donald Trump has proved less tolerant of Pakistan’s prevarication than his predecessors Bush or Obama. He has proved less amenable to the argument that the US cannot push Pakistan too much given Washington’s logistical considerations in Afghanistan. While Trump has been blunt in his views and cut off some $ two billion of military aid, the US State Department and the Pentagon have been playing the ‘good cop’ by delivering a softer message that Pakistan must play ball or forego civilian and military aid. Trump has asked the US Congress to approve a reduced $ 336 million civil and military aid for Pakistan on the grounds that this will help defeat IS and al Qaeda, aims the Pakistani military is comfortable with, but Congress has added the condition that the military component of this aid will only be given if Pakistan moves against the terrorist safe havens on its soil. Equally of concern, the US has moved to restore Pakistan’s name on the terror-financing watchlist if it does not crack down on terrorist groups of all shades and hues, including those targeting India over Kashmir or internal sectarian groups. To stave off such an outcome, Pakistan has taken some actions against groups ostensibly banned but able to operate freely through a ‘mini-crackdown’ targeting certain welfare facilities run by groups such as Jamaat ud Dawa. This represents less a change of heart regarding such groups and more an expedient effort to avoid the watchlist that could impact our economy negatively. The three-cornered minuet being played out between Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US for many years now appears to be approaching its last movements. But unfortunately, our policy makers have yet to wake up to the implications of this endgame and grasp firmly the nettle of elimination of terrorist groups from our soil without discrimination or exceptions.