In his “successful” five-day visit to the United States, Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif has convinced the American leadership that Pakistan was a reliable and sincere partner for peace in Afghanistan and also made a strong pitch for greater bilateral defense ties.
The general, whom the world sees as the leader in-charge of his country’s foreign and security policies, has met a number of world leaders during the last twelve months, including British Prime Minister David Cameron, Turkish President Tayyep Erdogan, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, and senior Chinese, Russian and Iranian leaders. But Washington was different in a number of ways. The trip bolstered his image of being an impressive figure overseas. The army chief relishes this spotlight too. Speaking at Royal United Services Institute in London in October, he tried to explain that he was being compelled to play this role to fill the vacuum created due to the shortcomings of the civilian government.
Breaking with traditional protocol, US Vice President Biden and Senate committees on armed services and intelligence met with Gen Sharif too.
He also held meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen Dunford, Centcom Commander Gen Austin, Chief of Army Gen Mark Milley, CIA Chief John Brennan, and the acting National Security Adviser.
Looking at the enviable list of the meetings the general had in Washington while on the semi-official trip, it can be argued that the visit to the US was one of his best travels overseas. Having departed for the visit amidst an ugly spat with the government over his remarks at the corps commanders conference about governance issues, he – according to a keen onlooker – would be returning re-energized.
“It was a very successful visit. The army chief had productive meetings with his interlocutors in which he very candidly discussed all issues of mutual interest,” Military Spokesman Lt Gen Asim Bajwa, who accompanied the army chief on the US trip, told me.
Courting of Gen Sharif by key figures in Washington made it clear that the US has a lot of expectations from him, especially with regards to settling Afghanistan – an issue that featured during all of his (army chief’s) discussions there.
Gen Bajwa had told correspondents before leaving Washington that there was a consensus that the Afghan reconciliation process – which has been suspended since the revelation of Mullah Omar’s death followed by a rise in violence – has to be resumed at the earliest, and all obstacles impeding its resumption have to be addressed.
A number of power centers have emerged in Afghanistan that are not ready to work with each other
An American source, meanwhile, said Gen Sharif looked “genuinely worried about Afghanistan” during his meetings in Washington. The army chief, according to the source, called for “a gradual and consistent progress” towards reconciliation instead of rushing headlong into the peace talks and failing again.
The security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated significantly this year, with Taliban mounting major attacks that caused heavy casualties among government forces as well as civilians. According to a New York Times report published in July 4,100 Afghan police and military were killed in the first six months of 2015, compared with about 5,000 killed during the entire 2014. There was a sharp increase in violence following the disclosure about Mullah Omar’s death and the breakdown of the peace talks.
Two major causes of worry are that Middle Eastern terrorist group ISIS’ activities in Afghanistan have become more pronounced, and that the Taliban have continued their militant activities even during the winter. Taliban have expanded their operations in Northern Afghanistan since they captured Kunduz for few weeks in September/October. Just last week, they seized control of the Yamgan district of Badkhshan province.
Preventing this situation from getting worse may be the top priority of both US and Pakistan, but a bigger concern for both is the increasing political dysfunction within the National Unity Government of Afghanistan. A number of power centers have emerged within Afghanistan that are simply not ready to work with each other.
This was at the back of Gen Sharif’s mind during his discussions on Afghanistan in Washington. He wanted to know who will guarantee the implementation of any agreement achieved in this regard. Add to that the all-time high Afghan mistrust about Pakistan.
Gen Sharif and his American interlocutors may have agreed to expedite the revival of stalled reconciliation process, but it would not be all that easy to achieve a breakthrough. Diplomatic sources, however, suggest that some progress could be achieved when Pakistan and Afghanistan jointly host the Heart of Asia Conference on December 7 and 8.
There are signs that behind-the-scenes contacts for a possible resumption of reconciliation dialogue have already begun. Afghan and Chinese governments have been briefed and US officials in Afghanistan are reaching out to elements in the war torn country who are opposed to the process.
An interesting development that took place after Gen Sharif concluded his Washington visit was the appointment of Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanekzai by Taliban as the head of their political office in Doha. The militant group has repeatedly said that their Doha office was the point of contact for any reconciliation effort. Stanekzai replaced Tayyab Agha, who resigned in August because of the succession dispute within the group following the news of Mullah Omar’s death. In Stanekzai’s formal appointment, many Afghanistan experts see signaling on part of Taliban that they are ready for peace talks.
The Haqqani Network also came up during Gen Sharif’s discussions in Washington, though with lesser emphasis. The army chief reportedly explained his stance. His position was that the Haqqanis should not be alienated to a point that it begins hurting the reconciliation process.
Gen Sharif also updated the American leadership about the progress being made in the fight against militancy at home. He attributed the successes to the public support at home and the supplies and hardware provided by the US.
Gen Sharif placed special emphasis on addressing the problematic narrative about Pakistan not honestly tackling extremism. His interactions with Senate committees were particularly important in this regard.
About the meeting with Senate Intelligence Committee, Gen Bajwa said: “Senators Richard Burr and Feinstein noted that Pakistan Army’s perseverance and commitment had degraded militant networks in the country. They further acknowledged that Pakistan had turned the tide of terrorism, and assured the COAS of US support and cooperation in eradicating terrorism and extremism.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by Senator McCain, who leads the Senate Committee on Armed Services. “This interaction will prove extremely beneficial for establishing the proper narrative,” said a diplomat, who followed the meetings. The engagement would also help deepen defense cooperation, he added.
On the nuclear issue, both sides simply reiterated their positions without much progress, the source said. There is nothing the Americans are more concerned about than the tactical weapons, he said.
On his way back, Gen Sharif visited Brazil and Pakistan’s peacekeeping troops in Ivory Coast. Both the visits are rare, if not unprecedented.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad
This exactly shows what is wrong With Pakistan. Military has sidelined the elected civilian leadership and usurped its space in governance issues