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Receding American leverage over Pakistan

While the American Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in session with Pakistani civil and military leadership, Senate was castigating his remarks in Kabul. Tillerson’s recent statement in which he had warned Pakistan to move against the Taliban and other groups inside the country “or face consequences”, did not go down well with the Senate.  Chairman Raza Rabbani aptly remarked that the tone and tenor of Tillerson was not acceptable to Parliament of Pakistan. “He is acting like a viceroy.” A day earlier, while speaking at a press conference in Kabul, on October 23, Tillerson had said that during his visit to Islamabad he would reinforce  Trump administration’s demand to move against the Taliban and other extremists based inside its borders or face the consequences.

In the meanwhile Caitlin Coleman saga continues to degenerate into different narratives. It is in keeping with American practice of creating information fog around such events to make it difficult to discover the facts. Circulating stories in the Western media are ranging from “released for ransom” to “Pakistan buckling under pressure”.   Apart from prevailing confusion, two things are abundantly clear, first, Pakistan is always willing to cooperate with international community to track down terrorist elements provided actionable intelligence is shared; probably it could have done same in case of Osama bin Laden as well. And the second thing is that the high pitch US reaction points toward the likelihood that Coleman was a high-profile abductee—may be a high-ranking CIA operative. Notwithstanding, Canadian-American family’s mysterious rescue raises new questions.

Freed couple has praised Pakistan government and its agencies on the action against Haqqanis. In an interview after he was freed, Mr. Boyle, Coleman’s spouse, praised Pakistan: “Our gratitude is boundless;” earlier his parents also expressed similar feelings. Trump administration projected the rescue as a win for Pakistan without publicly acknowledging that Pakistan had to be pressured into conducting the operation. “This is a positive moment for our country’s relationship with Pakistan,” President Trump said in a statement. This public standing by Trump is similar to Obama’s comments soon after Osama bin Laden was killed; Obama had acknowledged that Americans had reached Osama with Pakistan’s help. The officials from President Donald Trump’s administration placed this operation as a feather in Pakistan’s cap.

Couple was abducted in Afghanistan in 2012 and their abductors were changing locations. Contrary to the Pakistani account, CIA Director Mike Pompeo claimed on October 19 that: “We had a great outcome last week when we were able to get back four US citizens who had been held for five years inside of Pakistan,” These are first remarks by a US official, publicly stating that the family spent their captivity in Pakistan. The Afghan Taliban have denied claims made by Pompeo: “They were not on Pakistan’s soil but in Paktia [province of] Afghanistan,” the group’s spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid told media in an exclusive email interview. He added that only in the few days before the rescue was the border area used to transfer the couple to Kunar. Earlier Pakistan had indicated that US citizen Caitlan Coleman, her Canadian husband Joshua Boyle and their children were rescued shortly after entering Pakistan from Afghanistan. And that Pakistani troops and intelligence agents, acting on a US intelligence tip, zeroed in on a vehicle carrying the family as they were being moved into Kurram Agency near Kohat, some 60 km inside Pakistan. Moreover, two Taliban sources have also said that the family had been kept in Pakistan in recent years.

Fox News reported on October 23 that US army sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who had pleaded guilty to deserting his post in Afghanistan in 2009, has said his captors were more “honest” with him than the army has been since his release three years ago. Bergdahl was held captive by the Afghan Taliban-allied Haqqani network in Afghanistan after deserting his post until May 2014 when his captors swapped him with five Taliban detainees in the Guantanamo Bay detention centre. “At least the Taliban were honest enough to say, ‘I’m the guy who’s gonna cut your throat,’” Bergdahl, 31, tells British TV journalist Sean Langan in an exclusive interview with the Sunday Times Magazine titled ‘The Homecoming from Hell’.

Notwithstanding, and as usual, American media is using the sequel to demean Pakistan and the Taliban. For their part, Taliban have refuted the charges of rape and murder in a professional manner; such charges go against Taliban’s track record. They had on the contrary allowed the couple to stay together and pursue their family growths on oriental scale. Government of Pakistan should also come clean on New York Times story, lest this predominant perception is perceived as gospel truth.

Adam Goldman and Eric Schmittoct in their October 17 piece for New York Times captioned “Navy SEALs Were Ready if Pakistan Failed to Free Family Held as Hostages” have come-up with another version. “The top American diplomat in Pakistan, Ambassador David Hale, turned to his host country: Resolve this, or the United States will. The implication was clear. If the Pakistanis did not act decisively, the United States would set aside its unease and launch a raid deep inside the country to free the family. It would be another humiliating episode for the Pakistani government…they acted within hours. With assistance from American intelligence, they located the vehicle and rescued the family…risky operation planned on Pakistani soil was called off because some in the United States government were not certain that the people spotted by the drones were Ms. Coleman, Mr. Boyle and their children…Others voiced worries about the difficult terrain and the moon — it was too bright for a nighttime airborne raid…”

Prime Minister Shahid Khagan Abbasi received a telephone call from the US Vice President Mike Pence on October 18. He thanked the government of Pakistan and praised the professionalism of the Army and the intelligence agencies for the swift response. He reaffirmed the importance of bilateral relations and said that the US would like to further build this relationship for peace and prosperity of the region. Reaffirming Pakistan’s resolve to eliminate terrorism from its soil, the Prime Minister assured the US Vice President that Pakistan would “respond to any actionable intelligence shared by the US side”. The two leaders agreed to maintain high level engagements to “strengthen cooperation in areas of mutual interest”. Earlier, the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also called to convey US government’s gratitude for the safe recovery of the hostages. Pence also accepted an invitation by the PM to visit Pakistan in the near future. After Tillerson Defence Secretary Mattis is due shortly.

 In the meanwhile, the CIA director in a speech at the “Foundation for Defense of Democracies”, a Washington think tank, that if history is to be a guide, then very low expectations should be set for Pakistan’s willingness to cooperate with the US in fighting “radical Islamic terrorism” …Pakistan must first deny the militants a safe haven on its soi,.” This came on the heels of Tillerson’s comments at the “Center for Strategic and International Studies” on October 18. CIA Director Mike Pompeo said Thursday. Pompeo said for talks to move ahead, the Taliban must have no hope of winning on the battlefield in Afghanistan, and that means making it no longer possible to cross the Afghan-Pakistani border and hide inside Pakistan.

During the meeting between Prime Minister and US Vice President on the UNGA sidelines and the recent follow-up visit of the US interagency delegation on October 12, both sides have agreed to remain engaged at all levels. Senior level visits from the US are expected as part of the understanding on bilateral engagements at various levels. Recently there have been many positive developments in Pak-US relations which have resulted in better understanding and increasing cooperation. Recovery of the abducted couple has added to the cooperative spirit and optimism. Pakistan has appreciated President Trump’s message on October 14, which said that US was “starting to develop a much better relationship” with Pakistan and its leaders. He also thanked for Pakistan’s cooperation on many fronts.

Relations between Pakistan and the United States were on the tenterhook, but on October 11, the fragile ties took a dramatic turn when Pakistan successfully rescued an American-Canadian couple. Event provided Donald Trump an opportunity to back paddle his anti-Pakistan rhetoric with face saving. Pakistan’s action helped restore the confidence of the Trump administration that Islamabad could be partnered with to stabilize Afghanistan. Apparently, Pakistan and the US have now found new grounds for relationship building to deal with more pressing challenges. Khurasani’s death is another “significant and positive development” as Pakistan had long called for such decisive action on the other side of the border. The elimination of TTP sanctuaries and its leadership on the Afghan side has been one of Pakistan’s major demands.

Ongoing US military operation in Afghan side of Durand Line may be linked to Pakistan’s commitment to take action against militant groups on its side of the border. Pakistan army has stated that the US had shared information with Pakistan before launching this operation. Officials said both sides have been in contact and Pakistan was providing crucial intelligence to the US to locate high-value targets on the other side of the border.

Pakistan, through its actions like Zarb-i-Azb and Radd-ul-Fassad etc. has already proved that it is willing to take on any such group. Pakistan had been pushing for coordinated operations on both sides of the border, which is finally happening now. While the US and Afghan Forces are conducting operations on their side of the border, Pakistan security forces are remaining vigilant to ensure none of their targets can sneak into Pakistan.

In a cross purposed statement, US Envoy to the UN said that “US needs India to keep an eye on Pakistan”.  Moreover, Tillerson stated on October 18: “We expect Pakistan to take decisive action against militant groups based there that threaten its own people and the broader region.”

While American actions are eroding ts leverage over Pakistan, America continues to pose as if it is enhancing. This dichotomy is breeding confusions at policy and functional level. How do we interpret such confusing statements of American leadership?  For this we may refer to Iranian supreme leader’s October 19 remarks: “[Trump] pretends to be an idiot, but we should not let our guard down”. 

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The four-nation Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) talks on exploring ways to revive peace process in Afghanistan, were held in Oman on October 16. Parleys ended without any breakthrough. And participants—Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the United States—preferred to stay quiet over the event and no joint statement was issued. The QCG, had held its previous meeting in Islamabad early last year. The QCG was set up in December 2015, by the Heart of Asia Conference in Islamabad. The main aim of the initiative was to make collective efforts for arranging direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban; and since its inception, the group has been trying to carve the path to direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The US has ever since been playing both sides, trying for negotiation with Taliban as well as systematically disrupting it, at will. The group had held five meetings before the process met a dead end after Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansur was killed in July 2016. Now Taliban’s military campaign “Operation Mansuri” is in full swing in Afghanistan.Whether Trump likes it or not, Pakistan remains vital for the United States as a route to supply American and Afghan war effort. Pakistan shares international community’s concerns about instability in Afghanistan. Pakistan is ready to work with every one and any one as a partner for achieving peace and security in the region. However, arm twisting and bad mouthing will not lead any party anywhere.

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