US resumes Pak ties, but Islamabad wary

The killing of a warlord, the rescue of the abducted Canadian-American family point to overtures from Washington but Islamabad feels safer in Chinese embrace.

WrittenBy:Umer Farooq
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The renewed cooperation between Pakistani and US forces deployed on the Pakistan-Afghan border areas led to the killing of dreaded militant, Umar Khalid Khorasani aka Abdul Wali, the chief of the outlawed Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), a splinter group of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan.

Khorasani was killed (or at least severely injured according to unconfirmed reports) in a drone attack on Monday that were resumed by US military after months-long interruption in the drone attacks. At least 31 militants were killed in four drone attacks, which according to Pakistani officials took place on the Afghan side of the border and about which Pakistani military was informed in advance by US forces deployed across the border.

Pakistani military announced that cooperation and intelligence sharing between Pakistani and US forces were resumed after a long gap following the visit of Pakistan’s Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa to Kabul where he met his Afghan counterpart and senior US military officials and discussed with them the possibility of resumed intelligence cooperation to combat terrorism.

The intelligence cooperation between Pakistani and US forces in the border areas declined following the US commando raid in Abbottabad that killed Osama Bin Laden in May 2011.

In the intervening period, US officials expressed fear that intelligence shared with Pakistani military could possibly be leaked to the militants who, the US accused, had links with Pakistani security forces.

In the wake of latest four drone attacks, however, the Pakistani military announced that the cooperation between two militaries and intelligence sharing have resumed. “Military operations are being conducted in Khost and Paktia, Afghanistan by Resolute Support Mission (RSM)/Afghan forces, opposite Kurram Agency. During the last 24 hours, several air engagements have taken place in those areas in Afghanistan with reports of heavy losses for terrorists. As a follow-up to General Bajwa’s Afghanistan visit, the coordination between the forces has enhanced. RSM shared timely details about the said operation within Afghan territory,” reads a press release of the Pakistan Army.

Earlier, the Pakistani military announced the Pakistani Army chief visited Kabul in the first week of October and discussed with his Afghan counterpart and senior US military officials the possibility of enhancing security coordination and intelligence sharing between the two militaries in their operations against the “common enemy”.

The four drone attacks were the second incident of cooperation and coordination between the two forces during October. Earlier this month, the Pakistani Army rescued a five-member Canadian-American family from the Pak-Afghan border area in an operation carried out on a tip-off from US intelligence. The family, a Canadian, his US national wife and their three children, were recovered from terrorist custody through an intelligence-based operation by Pakistan troops and intelligence agencies. They had been captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan during 2012 and were kept as hostages there.

US intelligence agencies had been tracking them and shared their movement into Pakistan on October 11, 2017, through Kurram Agency border. “The success underscores the importance of timely intelligence sharing and Pakistan’s continued commitment towards fighting this menace through cooperation between two forces against a common enemy,” reads a Pakistan Army press release.

Both US President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence personally thanked Pakistani leaders for the cooperation extended to secure the release of the Canadian-American family. Both this operation and intelligence sharing in the conduct of drone strikes were seen in military circles as the resumption of tactical cooperation between the two militaries to combat terrorism and militancy in border areas.

This tactical cooperation has hardly succeeded, however, in hiding the disappointment prevalent in official circles as far as overall relations with Washington are concerned. The visible deterioration in relations started to appear after Trump’s September speech in which he accused Pakistan of harbouring terrorists and militants who were attacking US forces in Afghanistan. He also warned Pakistan of dire consequences.

There was a discernible mood in Islamabad official circles that generally believed the continued close relations with Washington are no more a possibility.  I remember interviewing a senior government minister for television in the wake of Trump’s speech and in the off-camera conversation, he was full of complaints against Washington but at the same time determined not to offend the US administration. “They (Americans) simply don’t listen to us, but they are the sole superpower we cannot afford to antagonise America,” he said off the record.

In the wake of Trump’s speech, the Pakistani government was so offended at its content that they cancelled its foreign minister’s scheduled visit to Washington and instead sent him to Beijing, Moscow and Tehran. Islamabad also refused to receive US State Department officials. “We will have to consult our friends and weigh our options before we formulate our response to the new US-Afghan policy,” said an official statement before Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif went on a three-nation official tour.

In the meantime, the US pressure on Pakistan to carry out resolute operations against militant groups carrying out attacks on US and Afghan forces inside Afghan territory grew with time.

Senior Pakistani military officials were quoted as saying in Pakistan media that they were ready to cooperate with US and Afghan forces in combating militancy, but they would not allow the Afghan war to be fought on Pakistani soil.

Foreign policy experts in Islamabad believe that Pakistan has received considerable support from allies like China, which seem to understand Pakistan’s position that “Afghan war should be fought on Afghanistan’s soil and Pakistan is not ready to fight the Afghan war on its soil”.

Following his three-nations visit, Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif visited Washington where he held talks with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. However, the mood in Islamabad is so hostile to the idea of any joint Pak-US operation on Pakistani territory that when Khawaja Asif offered joint operation to his American counterpart this idea came under scathing criticism back home.

Although the Pakistani civil government seems to have a soft corner for Washington, Asif was not completely immune to this hostile attitude towards any more operations on Pakistani soil, prevailing in Islamabad. In a closed-door meeting in the Foreign Ministry, Asif pointed out to his colleagues that US intelligence has been tracking the abovementioned Canadian-American Family from Afghan territory much before their captors brought them into Pakistani territory, “Why didn’t American intelligence take action while the family was still in Afghanistan? Why they (Americans) allowed them to enter Pakistani territory?”

There is general belief in Islamabad that the US administration has deliberately maligned Pakistan at a time when the Pakistani security forces have broken the back of militancy on Pakistani territory. For most people in Islamabad, close relations with Washington are a thing of the past.

The major complaint against Washington seems to be that it has decided to give a strategic role to India in Afghanistan, creating a two-front scenario for Pakistan, a situation its political leaders and military planners have dreaded since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

A Pakistani expert with close links to the military told Newslaundry that New Delhi and Washington, during the last visit of US Defence Secretary to India, reached an understanding to give India a prominent role in the formation of the Afghan army.

The saner elements in Pakistani capital think that inter-state relations are no more a zero-sum game and that emerging strategic triangular relations between Afghanistan, India and Washington should not be a hurdle in the way of Pakistan developing working relations with both Washington and Kabul. This is considered necessary for the success of ongoing operations against militant groups in Pakistani tribal areas.

Ever since it came into being, the Pakistani foreign policy elite has perceived its success in terms of its relations with an extra-regional super power. During the Cold War, this extra-regional power was the US. Even shifting international political realities have not changed the perception of Pakistani foreign policy elite in this regard. They still want to be allied with or in the camp of an extra-regional power, and this time it is China. They are ready to put all their eggs in the Chinese basket.


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