Pakistan in the crosshairs of Trump’s Afghan strategy

Military, foreign office and government slam US accusation of harbouring armed groups, citing efforts to defeat fighters

Pakistan''s Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Qamar Javed Bajwa arrives to attend the Pakistan Day military parade in Islamabad
Pakistan's army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa said Islamabad does not want financial assistance from the United States, only its trust [File: Reuters]

Islamabad, PakistanPakistan has hit back at US accusations it harbours Afghan Taliban safe havens, with the country’s army chief rejecting financial assistance from the United States.

“We are not looking for any material or financial assistance … but trust, understanding and acknowledgement of our contributions,” Qamar Javed Bajwa said during a meeting with David Hale, the US ambassador to Pakistan.

“We have done a lot towards [achieving peace in Afghanistan] and shall keep on doing our best, not to appease anyone but in line with our national interest and national policy,” Bajwa said on Wednesday, according to a military press release.

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The defiant statement marks the first official response from Pakistan’s military, which controls the country’s security policy and elements of its foreign policy, to US President Donald Trump’s Monday announcement of a wide-ranging new policy in Afghanistan and South Asia.

Trump’s singled out Pakistan, saying that the South Asian nuclear power had been duplicitous in its dealings with the US and needed to change its policies.

“We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organisations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond,” Trump said. “Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists.”

On Thursday, Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi held a high-level meeting of the country’s national security committee, rejecting Trump’s allegations and terming the policy an attempt “to scapegoat Pakistan”.

The committee did, however, express Islamabad’s resolve to work with Washington, and called on US military forces to target Pakistan Taliban elements reportedly based in Afghan regions.

“We would like to see effective and immediate US military efforts to eliminate sanctuaries harboring terrorists and miscreants on the Afghan soil including those responsible for fomenting terror in Pakistan. The Afghan war cannot be fought in Pakistan,” the committee said in a statement released after the meeting.

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On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hinted at what could be on the line if Pakistan does not comply.

“We have some leverage that’s been discussed in terms of the amount of aid and military assistance we give them, their status as a non-NATO alliance partner. All of that can be put on the table,” he told reporters in Washington, DC.

‘Drone attacks could rise’

Analysts say that the new policy could also see an uptick in US drone attacks in Pakistani territory.

This year, four such attacks have been reported, down markedly from the 132 assaults in 2010, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

The possibility of US forces undertaking “hot pursuit” operations into Pakistani territory could also be on the cards, analysts say, previously a marked red line in Pakistan-US relations.

Pakistan is also the fifth largest recipient of US aid, although the amount has dropped in recent years. In 2017, Pakistan is due to receive $742.2m in military and civilian assistance.

The US has, however, been turning the screws, particularly in the form of reimbursements to the country’s military under the Coalition Support Fund.

In July, the US withheld $50m in reimbursements to Pakistan, adding to $300m already withheld over allegations that the country had not taken sufficient action against the Haqqani Network group.

The Afghan Taliban confirmed its former leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in a US drone attack in Pakistan [File: AP]
The Afghan Taliban confirmed its former leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in a US drone attack in Pakistan [File: AP]

Pakistan has repeatedly denied offering safe havens to elements of the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network. The latter was held responsible for several major attacks across Afghanistan, including a truck bombing in the capital Kabul in May that killed more than 80 people and left more than 400 wounded.

In May 2016, then Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in a US drone attack on his vehicle near the town of Noshki in southwestern Pakistan.

Mansour, who was travelling with a Pakistani passport under the name Wali Muhammad, had been returning from the Pakistan-Iran border town of Taftan.

Immigration records suggested that Mansour had undertaken more than a dozen trips to and from Pakistan, mostly to the United Arab Emirates and Iran, in the past several years.

‘Pakistan’s enormous  sacrifices’

Pakistan often points to its military operations against Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and cites its own civilian and military casualties as evidence it is part of efforts to wipe out armed groups and is also victim to attacks.

In 2014, the army launched the “Zarb-e-Azb” operation to remove the TTP and its allies, including al-Qaeda and other armed groups, from the North Waziristan tribal area.

The army says that operation, expanded to include nationwide security operations, has seen Pakistan slay 3,500 “terrorists” and lose more than 580 soldiers.

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This year, attacks by the TTP and so-called Islamic State or Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) have killed at least 554 civilians and security forces personnel, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal.

“This US strategy … was quite disappointing,” Nafees Zakaria, Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokesperson, told Al Jazeera. “It did not take into account Pakistan’s enormous sacrifices in the war against terrorism. We have been cooperating and collaborating with the US in the fight against terrorism.”

Zakaria’s comments echoed Pakistan’s official response to Trump’s announcement.

“Pakistan does not allow use of its territory against any country,” read a government statement released on Tuesday. “Instead of relying on the false narrative of safe havens, the US needs to work with Pakistan to eradicate terrorism.”

Indian role in Afghanistan

Trump’s call for regional rival India to play a larger role in establishing stability in Afghanistan is likely to cause concern, analysts said.

“India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development,” said Trump.

But in Thursday’s meeting, Pakistan’s national security committee rejected outright the idea that India could play a constructive role in Afghanistan.

“The Committee stressed that India cannot be a net security provider in the South Asia region when it has conflictual relationships with all its neighbours and is pursuing a policy of destabilizing Pakistan from the east and the west,” read a government statement.

Zahid Hussain, an Islamabad-based security analyst, said the mention of India would rankle policymakers.

“Until this president took over, the Americans were very careful and never encouraged India to take a deeper role, because they understood the [regional] dynamics in South Asia,” he told Al Jazeera. “But by publicly asking India to get more deeply involved, it will not help with Pakistan.

“One can understand the tensions between the two countries, and there are accusations from both sides of aiding each other’s insurgents. So in this situation, it is not a very wise thing to do.”

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Pakistan and India have fought three wars since gaining independence from Britain in 1947.

Tensions rose further after July last year when a security crackdown by Indian forces in the disputed region of Kashmir prompted a series of attacks on Indian military installations that that country blames on Pakistan-based fighters.

Pakistan denies the charge, accusing India of fomenting unrest in its southwestern Balochistan province.

Tillerson, the diplomat

Tillerson adopted a softer tone than Trump, saying the US may attempt to pressure India to return to the negotiating table.

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“There are areas where perhaps even India can take some steps of rapprochement on issues with Pakistan to improve the stability,” Tillerson said.

In Afghanistan, meanwhile, Trump’s criticism of Pakistan was broadly welcomed.

“On the Afghan side, it’s always assumed that the US could sort out Pakistan if it wanted to … and I think that’s a wrong assumption. I think it’s much more tricky,” said Kate Clark, a senior analyst at the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network.

Clark argued that Pakistan has, in the past, been able to manage pressure from the US effectively, while maintaining its own policies.

“It’s a shift in Trump’s personal opinion, but I don’t see it as a shift in terms of American strategy particularly,” she said, of the president’s announcement. “We’ve got a few more troops, but that’s basically enhancing the role those troops already have, which is to strengthen the [Afghan National Security Forces].”

Additional reporting by Shahid Nadeem in Islamabad.

Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim

Source: Al Jazeera