ISLAMABAD: Senator John McCain, Chairman Senate Armed Services Committee, led a four-member bipartisan, high-powered US Senate delegation, on an unprecedented visit to North Waziristan Agency on Sunday where he praised Pakistan’s ‘enormous successes’ in its counterterrorism campaign, saying he was “very impressed with the progress [on the ground]”.
This was the first time that a US delegation, which also included Senator Lindsey Graham, Senator Joseph Donnelly and Senator Benjamin Sasse, travelled to the tribal agency, which was effectively run by Taliban militants and their foreign cohorts until the Pakistan Army launched a massive operation, codenamed Zarb-e-Azb, against them in June 2014.
The influential American senators visited Pakistan’s frontline against terrorism in the backdrop of skepticism in certain US quarters that Islamabad was reluctant to go after all militant groups, particularly the Haqqani network, which is blamed for most deadliest attacks against US forces in Afghanistan.
The US Congress recently refused to provide funding for the F-16 fighter jets to be sold to Pakistan under the pretext that it was not doing enough against the Haqqani network. Pakistan has repeatedly dismissed the cynicism and now for the first time took senior US politicians to North Waziristan to get a firsthand account of its efforts in the fight against terrorism.
The delegation visited Miramshah, where senior Pakistan Army officials briefed the US lawmakers on the progress in Operation Zarb-e-Azb and how it dismantled the terror infrastructure.
“Having seen firsthand, the
erstwhile hideouts and communication infrastructure, been cleared of terrorists, the delegation was highly appreciative of Pak Army’s accomplishment of cleansing the entire area of North Waziristan right up to the Pak-Afghan border,” the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said in a statement.
The senators also commended the rehabilitation work being carried out by Pakistan Army to resettle tribesmen back in their area with dignity and honour.
The US delegation also met soldiers and officers who were seriously wounded during the initial phases of Operation Zarb-e-Azb and have now voluntarily rejoined the battlefield. “The visitors appreciated the determination and grit of all affected Pakistani soldiers and their unparalleled sacrifice for their motherland,” the ISPR said.
Senator McCain, who was also former Republican presidential candidate, using his social networking Twitter account described Pakistan as an important force to fight terrorism after the Miramshah visit. McCain also posted photographs showing he and his colleagues being given a briefing and honouring the ‘martyrs’ of Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan.
A senior security official, while speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Express Tribune that the whole idea of taking the high-powered US delegation to North Waziristan was to show the significant strides Pakistan had made against terrorism. “They were overwhelmed. They were highly impressed the way Pakistan Army has successfully eliminated terror infrastructure from North Waziristan,” the official said.
Before flying to Kabul, the US delegation met Prime Minister’s Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz at the Foreign Office. Other members of the delegation included Special Assistant to the PM on Foreign Affairs Tariq Fatemi and Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry.
According to a Foreign Office statement, Senator McCain and his colleagues deeply appreciated the ‘enormous success’ achieved by Pakistan in its counterterrorism campaign which they said was so impressively visible during their trip to North Waziristan.
The delegation commended the transparent process of Fata stabilisation carried out by the Pakistan government. They wished that other members of the US Congress were also present with them to witness the outcome of the successful military operations in North Waziristan.
The US Congress will be briefed appropriately for continued support to Pakistan in its efforts towards economic development and eradication of terrorism from the country, they added.
Welcoming the US senators, Aziz reiterated the importance of regular high-level contacts and added that parliamentary exchanges were particularly useful to understand each other’s perspective on issues of mutual interest and concern.
He also appreciated Senator McCain for his positive comments regarding the importance of Pakistan-US relations at a time when the region was facing complex challenges.
Aziz recounted Pakistan’s earnest efforts, particularly during the past few months, to keep the Pakistan-US partnership on track as the relationship remained important for ensuring peace and stability in the region.
He underscored the significance of the understanding of the leadership on both sides to make this partnership multidimensional and broader in canvas to cover all issues of mutual interest.
With reference to recent developments concerning the India-US relations, the Adviser emphasized the need to maintain strategic balance in South Asia.
On this, the US senators highlighted the significance of improved relations between India and Pakistan and said strengthening of the India-US bilateral ties did not diminish the importance of US relations with Pakistan.
Aziz also briefed the US Congress delegation about recent meetings with the Afghan side, in Islamabad and on the sidelines of the SCO Summit in Tashkent, on the vital issues of Pakistan-Afghanistan Border Management, Afghan Refugees and the Peace and Reconciliation process.
He stated that Pakistan remains committed to the QCG process in Afghanistan, which provided a broad, mutually agreed mechanism aimed at facilitating the government and people of Afghanistan to take lead in restoring peace, stability and prosperity in their country.
“No country had as much vital stakes in the success of these joint efforts as Pakistan,” Aziz said.
Senator McCain and his colleagues also welcomed closer coordination between Pakistan and Afghanistan on various complex issues. The US delegation reiterated the importance the US government and Congress attached to the stability and continued progress of Pakistan.
In view of the growing challenges confronting the world, the Senators recognized the need for greater contact between Pakistan and the US and to work together to address the regional and global challenges. They stressed that the Pakistan-US relations have maintained their strategic dimension over the decades and that the relationship would retain its vigor in the years ahead.
McCain’s Interview with PTV
In a separate interview with PTV after winding up his Pakistan trip, Senator McCain said he would like relations between the United States and Pakistan to improve as they have a common enemy in the Islamic State and other radical groups.
McCain said he had an ‘excellent meeting’ with Pakistani foreign ministry officials. “We come back with a message that we have a common enemy in ISIS, radical Islam and terrorism, and we look forward to closer relations and resolving the differences we have,” he added.
“I was very impressed with the progress (on the ground),” he said of his trip to North Waziristan. “I see us working together in confronting a common challenge – radical Islamic terrorism – and these kinds of meetings are very helpful to both those countries.”
Published in The Express Tribune, July 4th, 2016.