Pakistan's military operation against militants combined with the new government in Afghanistan have changed relations between the two countries, but is it enough to make them friends?
- By Daud KhattakDaud Khattak is a Pakistani journalist currently working as a senior editor of Radio Mashaal for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. He has worked with Pakistan’s English dailies The News and Daily Times, Afghanistan’s Pajhwok Afghan News, and has written for the Christian Science Monitor and London Sunday Times. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
As Pakistani Army Chief Gen. Raheel Sharif was busy emphasizing his country’s “sincerity” in taking action against all militants during his weeklong visit to Washington, Pakistan’s national security advisor, Sartaj Aziz, told an interviewer that Pakistan should not target militants who do not pose a threat to the country’s security.
Although the Pakistan Foreign Office, and later Aziz himself in an interview with this writer, refuted the words attributed to him, the cat was out of the bag. Many writers and analysts construe Pakistan’s anti-Taliban operations as a matter of choice — the “good” militants being spared and the “bad” subjected to military action.
For years, the international community, with the United States taking the lead, has been trying to persuade the powerful Pakistani security establishment for action against the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network — groups allegedly enjoying sanctuaries in Pakistan and targeting the local and international forces across the border in Afghanistan.
In an apparent sign of frustration with Pakistan’s foot-dragging, the then-chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen termed the Haqqani network as the “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September 2011.
However, since the launch of the Pakistani military’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan in mid-June 2014, the general perception about Pakistan’s selective approach toward the militants slowly changed. One example of this is the statement of Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, a senior commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, that the Haqqani network is “fractured” and that the operation “has very much disrupted their efforts [in Kabul] and has caused them to be less effective in terms of their ability to pull off an attack here in Kabul.”
Equally important is Sharif’s hard-hitting speech at a dinner at Pakistan’s embassy in Washington, during which he said: “These miscreants, these barbarians, played football with the heads of our soldiers, and that scene never went off my mind.” Although the reference was more related to Taliban commanders such as Mullah Fazlullah and Omar Khalid Khorasani, who brazenly claim responsibility for the killing and beheadings of Pakistani soldiers while the Haqqani network has not attacked Pakistani security forces, Sharif clarified the Army’s intentions by declaring that “this [operation] is against all hues and colors, and it is without any exception, whether it is Haqqani network or Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan or anything.”
Yet another reason for optimism was Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s two-day official trip to Islamabad on Nov. 14 and 15 that included a visit to the headquarters of the Pakistan Army, an opportunity rarely provided to any Afghan head of state or foreign government in decades. Apart from laying floral wreaths on the memorial of Pakistani soldiers who lost their lives fighting the militants, Ghani’s meeting with Sharif carried a high degree of importance.
So, can we hope that the two countries are getting closer to addressing the challenges posed by a number of terrorist and militant networks, specifically the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network, to the security and stability of the AfPak region? A few recent developments are important in understanding the current situation.
Unlike in the past, the Afghan government did not have a knee-jerk response to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s advisor on national security, Sartaj Aziz, replying to a question on the Haqqani network that “Pakistan need not take action against militants who are not harming the country.”
When a suicide bomber struck a volleyball match and killed around 60 people in the Yahyakhel district of Afghanistan’s southeastern Paktika province on Nov. 23, there was no Pakistan-bashing, as had been the case during the last few years of Hamid Karzai’s presidency. Instead, the National Security Directorate, Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, accused the Haqqani network of being responsible for the incident but stopped short of mentioning Pakistan.
In the past, Pakistan was synonymous with the Haqqani network for a majority of Afghan officials who believed the ISI was supporting the Haqqani militants to counter the Indian leverage in Afghanistan. On the same token, the Pakistanis have accused Afghan intelligence of providing sanctuaries to Mullah Fazlullah, chief of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and allowing him to plan and carry out attacks inside Pakistan.
Apparently, the two sides have started observing a degree of restraint since the ascension of the new administration in Kabul in September of this year. However, it is too early to go beyond a cautious optimism, keeping in mind the complexity of AfPak bilateral disputes, a past rife with animosity and suspicions, and the converging and diverging interests of the regional and international players.
Notwithstanding Ghani’s wish “not [to] allow the past to destroy the future” and Aziz’s hope to be able “to overcome these challenges,” the ground realities are always much different from the media statements.
“Hopes emerged and shattered like castles of sand with Hamid Karzai in Kabul and the once strong military ruler Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad,” said a Pakistani senator to this writer while recalling the past one-and-a-half decades of tense relations between the two neighbors.
Wishing not to be named, the senator said there are still several stumbling blocks to bringing the two sides to an understanding: “Pakistan’s obsession with Indian encirclement is forcing the country’s security establishment to use proxies such as the Haqqani network to stay on the safe side in Afghanistan.”
In early November, the Pentagon said in its six-monthly report to Congress: “Afghan- and Indian-focused militants continue to operate from Pakistan territory to the detriment of Afghan and regional stability.”
In Kabul, Ghani has been seen as a man of development and economic prosperity. His selection of Islamabad instead of New Delhi for a two-day trip in November after visiting China and Saudi Arabia points to a visible change of mind in Kabul about Pakistan.
However, Ghani’s foremost expectation from his neighbor is to help improve security in his war-battered country by reining in militant networks, such as the Haqqanis, whom the Afghan side believes are responsible for most of the terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan.
The gory side is that despite Pakistani assurances of taking action against all “hues and colors” of terrorist groups, terrorist attacks in Afghanistan continue unabated; nearly 12 suicide and bomb attacks were carried out in different parts of the country in the last half of November alone.
The success of the recent Pakistan-Afghanistan patch-up and the United States’ apparent reset with Pakistan — or many say with its military — will depend on the results of the latter’s actions directed at all militants, including the Haqqani network. At the same time, Afghans will have to satisfy their Pakistani neighbors about the presence of TTP chief Mullah Fazlullah on their soil.
In any case, the fresh gestures of goodwill are likely to evaporate with the passage of time, as happened previously, paving the way for a new proxy war in the region.
Daud Khattak is a Pakistani journalist currently working as a senior editor of Radio Mashaal for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. He has worked with Pakistani English dailies the News and Daily Times, as well as with Afghanistan’s Pajhwok Afghan News, and has written for the Christian Science Monitor and London’s Sunday Times.
The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.