Following years of an acrimonious blame game, the Pakistan and U.S. militaries appear to be engaged again in tactical counterterrorism cooperation for promoting a negotiated settlement to the war in Afghanistan.
American and Pakistani military officials have acknowledged the positive trend in mutual ties, with both sides underscoring the need for continued engagements.
“Pakistan looks forward to peace in Afghanistan. Pakistan has been doing its bit in this regard with other stakeholders,” army spokesman Major-General Asif Ghafoor told VOA on Friday.
Ghafoor was responding to comments made by a top American general on Thursday that cooperation from Pakistan “remains key to accomplishing the overall objective of a durable political settlement in Afghanistan.”
The Pakistani army spokesman made a further assertion. “The military-to-military engagement is likely to yield more positive results within the overall framework of stakeholders.”
Speaking in Washington a day prior, General Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), told reporters in Washington he has maintained a “very robust relationship” with Pakistan’s military chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. He emphasized that other U.S. officials also have been communicating to counterparts in Islamabad and “it is important to talk.”
“We continue to work closely with Pakistan to help them fulfill the important role that they have indicated they want to play. Now is the time for them to step forward,” the U.S. general said.
President Donald Trump, under his new South Asia strategy announced last August, has suspended military assistance to Pakistan until it takes decisive action against terrorists involved in attacks in Afghanistan and other regional countries. That move strained mutual ties and halted diplomatic contacts until weeks ago when Washington restored the high-level contacts with Islamabad.
Taliban ‘safe havens’
U.S. and Afghan officials have long alleged that Taliban leaders and those of the Haqqani network are directing the Afghan insurgency from “safe havens” in Pakistan.
Votel again called for Pakistan to continue to press against insurgents on its soil by either expelling them, arresting them or by pressuring them into holding peace talks with the Afghan government.
“And this, I think, really are the key things that we have asked for them, and we have seen some — over the last several months — some promising opportunities,” said the U.S. commander.
“We have seen Pakistan move in some of the directions that we have asked them to, but we need to see that in a much more strategic way and longer-term way as we press forward,” Votel added, but he did not elaborate.
The Taliban insurgency last month observed an unprecedented unilateral cease-fire during the three-day Eid festival, a move widely welcomed by the international community. U.S. officials at the time hinted Islamabad might have played a role.
Speaking in Islamabad earlier this month, Afghan ambassador Omar Zakhilwal for the first time publicly acknowledged that Pakistan did play a role in persuading the insurgents to declare the cease-fire, though he did not explain it further.
Some reports suggested that Islamabad agreed to pressure the Taliban in exchange for the U.S. killing of Mullah Fazllullah, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, and dozens of his fighters in drone strikes against their sanctuaries in Afghanistan.
Islamabad maintains, however it is not solely responsible for helping to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Officials say Pakistan’s influence with the insurgent group has receded in recent years. But other countries, including Russia and Iran, meanwhile have increased contacts with the Taliban over growing fears that Afghan insecurity is encouraging Islamic State state terrorists to solidify bases in Afghanistan.
Improving Pakistan-Afghan Ties
Pakistani authorities blame Afghan refugee populations in the country for sheltering Taliban insurgents over the years taking advantage of the largely porous border between the two countries.
General Ghafoor says that sustained counterterrorism operations over the last four years, however, have eliminated militant’s infrastructure on Pakistani territory, forcing insurgents to move back to Afghanistan.
He cites U.S. military assessments that the Taliban controls or contests nearly half of the Afghan territory. The Pakistan military has also lately begun fencing the Afghan border unilaterally, hoping it would deter terrorist infiltration in either direction and further ease mutual tensions.
General Votel while speaking Thursday also praised improved cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan militaries.
“And what we’ve seen is, we’ve seen a corresponding decrease in confrontations and conflict and tensions and exchanges along the border. These are very positive things,” Votel noted.
Pakistani and Afghan leaders also acknowledge improvement in their mutual ties under their landmark framework named Afghanistan-Pakistan Action-Plan-for-Peace-and-Solidarity (APAPPS).
Analysts note that the acrimony between Islamabad and Kabul has almost subsided, at least for the time being, as a result of the mutual engagements.
“We’ve made progress on paper, but we want action. I’m neither optimistic nor pessimistic,” Afghan President Ashraf Ghani remarked earlier this week when asked for his assessment of the ongoing dialogue with Pakistan.