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SEEMA MUSTAFA | 10 DECEMBER, 2014

New Delhi a Bystander as Pakistan, Afghanistan, U.S Rush to Mend Ties

Ashraf Ghani and Nawaz Sharif


NEW DELHI: New Delhi might have wrapped itself in a cocoon of ‘no talks with Pakistan’ but serious developments are taking place in the region with Islamabad improving its relations, and dramatically so, with the United States and Afghanistan in recent weeks. A series of high level bilateral visits has ended a long and tense hiatus in relations between Pakistan and the other two countries, with cooperation emerging as the buzz word.

Indian foreign policy that is following Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his visits and mega-events abroad seems to have lost its initiative in the region, with the London Conference on Afghanistan showcasing US, Afghanistan and Pakistan with India a barely visible participant. It is learnt that Minister of State for External Affairs V.K. Singh attended the conference but was very much on the sidelines of the Conference, attended by over 50 countries, hosted jointly by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and British Prime Minister David Cameron. US Secretary of State John Kerry and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif were the other two important players noted and written about by the international media.

Foreign troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan after 13 years and relations between Ghani and Sharif have become key to this process insofar as Washington is concerned. The visit by Pakistan Army Chief General Raheel Sharif has opened the gateways to new cooperation, with US officials being quoted in the American media confirming the improvement of bilateral relations.

AP recently quoted an unnamed US official as saying that on November 24 an American airstrike in eastern Afghanistan narrowly missed Pakistani Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah, long wanted by the Pakistan military. There is clearly more coordination between the three countries on air strikes, with Pakistan’s military operations in North Waziristan contributing greatly to the current thaw. The recent strikes carried out by the US have reportedly been directed at the Pakistan Taliban that has, through a series of violent attacks, been targeting the Pakistan Army and government. The recent strikes are a major confirmation of the renewal of the old alliance, whereby the three countries seem to be working together again in the ‘war on terror’.

Unlike his predecessor President Hamid Karzai, Ghani is not India centric and seems to be focusing entirely on improving relations with Pakistan. Sources here noted the “chemistry” between Ghani and Sharif, that has also been lauded in the Pakistani media as a sign of improved relations between the two countries. Pakistan has changed track to insist that it respects Afghanistan as a sovereign country, and not as an extension of its own “backyard.”

Levels of suspicion remain but clearly relations are on the mend and Washington, Islamabad Kabul seem to be engaged in an earnest effort to work together in the crucial months again when the foreign troops withdrawn from Afghanistan. Drone strikes that had become a major issue in Pakistan are on, but the US has been taking special care not to hit civilian targets. Islamabad on the other hand claims to have fractured the Haqqani network during its recently military operations. This was confirmed, significantly, by the deputy commanding general of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General Joseph Anderson to reporters in November.

US Secretary of State John Kerry was quoted in the American media as having said that the most important step the new Afghan government has taken was to improve relations with Pakistan. This gives a clear indication of how important this relationship is to Washington that had been visibly worried about the hitherto inability of Islamabad and Kabul to work together. Pakistan’s Ambassador to the U.S. Jalil Abbas Jilani, who was earlier the foreign secretary, also spoke of a marked improvement in ties over the last couple of months. Both President Ghani and Prime Minister Sharif have endorsed the need for better relations, and their meetings till date have recorded movement forward according to experts in both the respective countries.

Significantly the one give that Pakistan has clearly focused on is Kashmir, and the rhetoric on this is again gaining ground. PM Sharif raised the “core issue” in the United Nations General Assembly. General Sharif made it very clear at his meetings with the US officials that Kashmir was a key concern. And recently the permission given to Lashkar e Tayaba mentor Hafiz Sayeed to hold a big rally where he attacked India and highlighted Kashmir was a loud statement by the Pakistan government that Kashmir was back on top of the agenda.

The recent terror attack on an Army camp in Uri has not drawn the usual condemnation from the U.S. In response to a question the US State Department’s deputy spokesperson Marie Harf brushed aside the suggestion that Pakistan was responsible for the attack on the Indian army base. “I think that you’re conflating a couple of things. Obviously, we know the Secretary [of State John Kerry] and [General] Raheel Sharif had a very productive discussion on a range of security-related issues, and again, we’re concerned about any violence in Kashmir, and I wouldn’t jump to conclusions here,” she said.

Agencies reported that the premise of the question sought to put the blame on Pakistan for Friday’s incident and the questioner also wanted to know the US position if there was a link between the meeting and the fighting involving militants and Indian soldiers in the disputed Indian Kashmir.

“No, I was saying – I actually was trying not to accept the premise of the question,” Harf said when asked if she accepted the premise in the question about who might have been behind the violence.

Asked if the US knew whether there was any Pakistani involvement, the spokesperson cautioned against any assumptions: “I wouldn’t assume anything.”

The spokesperson, however, expressed concern over violence in the disputed Himalayan region and urged India and Pakistan to hold dialogue on the issue of Kashmir.

Reiterating Washington’s position on addressing the Kashmir dispute, the spokesperson said: “So obviously we’re concerned about any violence in Kashmir. Our policy on Kashmir hasn’t changed. We still believe that the pace and the scope and character of India and Pakistan’s dialogue on Kashmir is for those two countries to determine, of course.”

General Sharif during his visit to Washington drawn attention to hostilities on the border with India maintaining that Pakistan was being compelled to divide its military resources on its eastern border, instead of focusing on its war on terror. He wanted the Americans to intervene and urge New Delhi to cease the hostilities and talk, and the US State Department response is a clear indication of its position favouring a dialogue.

There is no change in New Delhi’s “hands off” position insofar as Pakistan is concerned. Prime Minister Modi has spoken to President Ghani congratulating him after he was elected to office. The two met on the sidelines of the Saarc summit in Nepal where Ghani accepted an invitation to visit India next year. Significantly at the Saarc meet agreements may be completed within the next three months, giving Pakistan time to complete its internal processes." The Afghan President was articulating the worry that the current stand off at New Delhi’s instance could lead to further hostilities between India and Pakistan, with Afghanistan being impacted in what was a crucial phase in its violence torn trajectory.

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