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SEEMA MUSTAFA | 20 NOVEMBER, 2014

PAKISTAN TAKES FIRST STEPS TO EMERGE FROM ISOLATION, TENTATIVE HUG FROM KABUL AND WASHINGTON

Ashraf Ghani and Nawaz Sharif


NEW DELHI: Two significant sets of meetings in recent days have brought Pakistan back onto the centre-stage of developments in the region concerning Afghanistan after a lull in which its relations with Washington and Kabul had deteriorated dramatically.

The meetings have restored Pakistan’s role in the process preceding, and following the US withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan with Islamabad emerging through the recent process as a trusted ally once again. Although it is early days yet the embrace from Washington and Kabul has been deliberate and warm underlying the need for bilateral and trilateral level of cooperation in the days and months to come.

The first has been the visit of the new Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani where the high level interactions seemed to brew new trust, and for the moment at least cease the accusations and hostility that had developed between the two capitals. The second is the currently ongoing visit of Pakistan Army Chief General Raheel Sharif to Washington along with the more senior but less influential Pakistan Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee General Rashad Mahmood.

The second has assumed a particularly important dimension as the Army chief, on his maiden visit to Washington, has met the top Pentagon officials as well as all senior lawmakers. Both sides have gone out of their way to stress that the meetings have gone a long way in re-establishing bilateral ties, and the trust that had broken down during the war against terror where both had accused each other of following covert agendas, without taking the other into confidence.

General Sharif’s meetings in Washington, according to both sides, have gone extremely well Particularly significant has been the visit of Pakistan Army chief General to Washington where he has met the top Pentagon officials, as well as top lawmakers. This is a maiden visit and according to reports in both the US and Pakistan media, the meetings have gone a long way in re-establishing ties, and the trust that had broken down over the years between the two allies.

The Washington Times reported a senior U.S. military official as saying that Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and Gen. Rashad Mahmood have spent time together within the halls of the Pentagon “while working toward rebuilding the relationship between their respective countries.” And that the Pentagon, aware of the importance of the Army chief in the Pakistan establishment was keen to ensure a meeting between General Dempsey and General Sharif as well.

General Sharif spoke at length of Operations Zarb-e-Azb making it clear that it was targeting all militants without discrimination. "I would like to openly say that this (operation) is against all hues and colors, and it is without any discrimination, whether it is Haqqani network or TTP or anything", he said at a reception in Washington. Reports suggest that he has come closer to convincing the US administration that the Pakistan Army was no longer playing “games”---as it was suspected to under former Army chief General Pervez Musharraf and subsequently---and was determined to carry its fight against terror to the finish.

The General said publicly, and privately, that the military operations had been launched with commitment, had the backing of the civilian government and the nation, and that it was not “just a military offensive but a concept to defeat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.” He insisted that the campaign was not restricted to Waziristan and the Khyber tribal areas but covered the entire country.

Worry about the mushrooming of the Islamic State in Pakistan was also discussed at the meetings, with assurances from the visiting generals of acting against it at all levels. The more cautious experts of course see the visit as a first in mending bridges, and repairing what many have described as an increasingly dysfunctional relationship before it spins out of control.

A second plus towards this has been the successful visit of the new Afghan President with a 150 member delegation to Islamabad, where he focused not on just trade and business, but on security issues. Ghani met with military and intelligence officials, and left Islamabad with both sides claiming major success and renewed bilateral understanding to work closely together. Ghani had extended meetings with all top leaders, including of course the President and Prime Minister of Pakistan, He also sat with other political party leaders and with clerics, and in a departure from past precedent, visited the Army headquarters as well where he had a round of meetings with senior military personnel.

The Inter-Services Public Relations director-general, Maj.-Gen Asim Bajwa, tweeted after the meeting: “Afghan President in Pak: Security, stability a shared goal. Our security inextricably linked. Long term partnership, border Coord mechanism in focus.”

Significantly General Sharif spoke at length about the hostilities on the Line of Control with India saying that this breach of peace had compelled Pakistan to divert troops to the western border. Ghani on the other hand showed little to no interest in New Delhi unlike his predecessor Hamid Karzai who was seen as far more supportive of India, particularly in his latter years. Ghani’s silence led sections of the Pakistan media to speculate that the proposed cooperation for weapons from India was no longer on Afghanistan’s anvil, although there is little on the ground to confirm this independently as yet.

Pakistan has been able to convince Ghani that its policy has indeed changed, and it is no longer looking at Afghanistan as an extension of its own backyard. And that both the civilian government and the army are on the same page in giving whatever help required and asked for to establish Afghanistan as a sovereign, independent country.

New Delhi has remained outside these developments with its ‘hands off Pakistan’ policy. However, China has shown no such reticence and has been watching the situation closely. Its official media has noted, “Afghan President Ashraf Ghani wrapped up his two-day visit to Pakistan at the weekend on a positive note as both countries managed to banish years-long mistrust and build a relationship marked by political, security and economic cooperation.

President Ghani pointed out at his joint press conference with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that both countries have "removed the 13 years of differences just in three days."

The accusations between Pakistan and the US and Afghanistan seem to be set to subside if the results of these visits kick in as expected. The air seems to have been cleared of suspicions that have warped the relationships, required by all three, to ensure that the renewed offensive by the Taliban is successfully countered and the Islamic State is not able to get a foot into the region as a result. Pakistan’s National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz is of the view that the last is still a fairly remote possibility but the threat of the Islamic State should not be taken lightly. As he said, and as the recent meetings in Islamabad and Washington have underscored, it was imperative for Afghanistan to come out of the violence intact and sovereign to prevent forces like the IS from gaining ground.

New Delhi, however, remains more concerned about “teaching Pakistan a lesson” as advocated by overzealous television anchors, rather than in recognising the changes--nuanced and otherwise---that are visible to all stakeholders on the ground.

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