Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Raheel Sharif, paid an important visit to the United States on Nov 15-20, 2015. This five-day visit underscored security issues facing Islamabad and Washington in the region and it was attached “unprecedented” importance especially because of the expectations attached by the US authorities to Pakistan’s role for restoring peace in Afghanistan. The visit was also an expression that when the infamous ‘do more’ mantra has rendered infructuous in the wake of the operation Zarb-e-Azb, the COAS now expects his American counterparts to do their part.
The peace process in Afghanistan remained top priority during the Army Chief’s visit to the United States. During the visit, the COAS held extensive discussions with key figures of the Obama administration including Secretary of State John Kerry and the US Vice President Mr Joe Biden. The COAS held also several important meetings with key figures in the defence establishment including US Army Chief of Staff General Mark A. Milley and CIA Director John Brennan, and discussed bilateral defence cooperation and the prospects of regional peace in South Asia. The army chief stressed the need for a conducive environment in the region for re-initiating an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process; one that has been disrupted, stalling the process despite Pakistan’s sincere efforts.
The short visit gained added prominence in the aftermath of the Paris attacks as the world’s focus was jolted once again towards confronting the menacing spectre of terrorism that by now knows no borders. As such, the discussions and agreements made during the meetings of the COAS will have major implications for the global response towards terrorism as both Pakistan and the US are two of the most important frontline states of this war. Thus it comes as no surprise that the war against global terrorism figured prominently in the COAS’s meetings with US authorities.
Improving Pak-US Ties
This was a undoubtedly, much-needed visit as the turbulent relationship between the US and Pakistan was witnessing a low in the beginning of this year. Congress restricted US military aid to Pakistan, funded through the State and Defence Department, unless the administration certified that Pakistan was meeting several conditions. These conditions included taking steps to end support for the Haqqani network and other such groups. The superpower also remained mum during the time when Indian aggression was at its peak. The way the US officials have responded to the COAS however, indicates that attitudes towards Pakistan may improve. The COAS is an extremely popular figure at home, and no one can deny that the military has not made an effort to clean up Pakistan’s problems. It is very likely that Raheel Sharif gave the American’s the same good impression that he has given his people.
War on Terrorism
The COAS was assured that the US will continue to fully support Pakistan in its fight against terrorism as the US officials expressed appreciation for Operation Zarb-e-Azb. The COAS on his part held out the reassurance that Pakistan was committed to eliminating terrorism for good but also made some demands on his US counterparts that the Pakistani military feels are essential to ensure regional peace. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter underlined “the strategic importance of Pakistan-US relations” and that the US valued relations with Pakistan as “independent of [its ties with] all other countries.”
The generality shown by Mr Carter doesn’t fit with Pakistan’s perspective, because it expects of Washington to weigh in with India and stop heating up the common borders. Pakistan has already passed on to the American side solid information as proof of Indian intelligence agency RAW’s involvement in fomenting terrorism in Pakistan. Being the principal promoter of India as regional power, the US may like to help the Modi government revisit its relations with its neighbours including Pakistan in order to obtain regional peace by resolving outstanding issues, including Kashmir.
General Raheel Sharif during his meeting with John Kerry called for resolution of the longstanding Kashmir dispute between Pakistan and India for achieving durable peace and stability in South Asia. The COAS sought more proactive role of the US for conflict resolution in South Asia. India has always opposed third-party intervention on Kashmir yet Pakistan believes the US, given its clout and leverage, can play a role in defusing tensions between the two hostile neighbours.
The Afghanistan Issue
The lingering instability in Afghanistan especially came under discussion at the CIA headquarters. The COAS on his part held out the reassurance that Pakistan was committed to eliminating terrorism for good but also made some demands on his US counterparts that the Pakistani military feels are essential to ensure regional peace. He highlighted that the fight against terrorism cannot be won with Afghanistan’s security situation in disarray but currently the environment in Pakistan’s western neighbour was not conducive to restarting the crucial peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The COAS therefore urged the US security officials to do more in Afghanistan to push the Afghan government in the direction of the peace talks.
Afghan Peace Process
The Chief told his hosts though Pakistan would very much like to re-initiate peace and reconciliation process, yet for that to happen the environment has to be conducive, which as of now is not. And that too is of India’s making, because with tensions on eastern borders Pakistan’s attention would be diverted away from Afghanistan. Who should know better than the Americans that Ashraf Ghani government is hostage to the machinations of anti-Pakistan civil-military coterie in Kabul which has flourished in chaos and anarchy. It is they who provided sanctuaries to the Taliban who fled the Zarb-e-Azb in tribal areas, and now use these fugitives at will to keep anti-Pakistan pot boiling.
Implications for Regional Peace
The operation Zarb-e-Azb stands out as the most successful campaign against terrorism, extremism and political crime. Given the un-abating curse of terrorism, and more so now as it presents itself in the guise of so-called Islamic State, the world would like to benefit from the Pakistan’s counter-terrorism experience. The United States has appreciated and acknowledged Pakistan’s successful counter-terrorism operations, with Secretary Carter saying “such efforts opened opportunities for regional peace”.
The true purpose of the visit was to apprise the Americans of the fact that Pakistan is a responsible regional power trying to protect its national interest against foreign threats. While addressing two Senate committees, intelligence and armed services, the COAS truly served that purpose. The senators also acknowledged that Pakistan had ‘turned the tide of terrorism’ and assured the US support and cooperation in eliminating terrorism and extremism from the region.
Pak-US relationship has been the subject of much attention over the past two months with Pakistan’s two top men, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and now Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif, having visited the country. While very little details have become public of COAS Raheel Sharif’s recently concluded visit, the protocol received by the COAS gained local and international attention. The general briefed two Congressional committees, met CIA Chief Brennan, US Secretary of State John Kerry and concluded his visit after talks with US Vice President Joe Biden. A White House statement concludes that Pakistan and the US have reaffirmed shared commitments on terrorism, regional stability and economic development. Afghanistan and India were also key features of the visit as the US gave a go-ahead to resuming talks between the Taliban and Afghan government. A number of US senators also acknowledged Pakistan’s role in the war on terrorism in the region. In a dinner with the Pakistani community in Washington, the COAS was keen to emphasise that the decisive operation against terrorists and their financiers and abettors in Pakistan should not have been delayed.
General Raheel Sharif is believed to have communicated Pakistan’s fears in accepting the facilitation role that it is expected to play for reviving the process. The Pakistani side is primarily concerned about the Afghan security establishment thwarting a renewed process.
Moreover, the assistance and support that Pakistan sought in its fight against local militants is necessary and without it terrorism cannot be rooted out from within the country. These concerns should not be dismissed as a Pakistan-specific problem as indeed the militancy in Pakistan is but one crucial block of the larger global menace and needs to be destroyed with just as much urgency as the IS does. The US as the superpower needs to act responsibly and make sure that Pakistan’s operation against terrorism is not handicapped by its inaction and failure to use its influence to minimise the possibility of a nightmarish two-front war that can cripple Pakistan’s counterterrorism drive. Pakistan has a key role to play in the global fight against terrorism but to do so it must be supported to bring its own house in order. Total sincerity from all stakeholders is an absolute requirement if there is to be any chance of envisioning a peaceful world.