ISLAMABAD: The Afghan Taliban-affiliated Haqqani Network has been a major source of friction between Pakistan and the United States for years. Washington is far from convinced that Islamabad has abandoned its support to the insurgent group, despite Pakistan taking full control of North Waziristan Agency (NWA), which was once considered the headquarters of the Haqqani Network.
In order to substantiate Pakistan’s claim that it is not playing a ‘double game’, Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif on Monday disclosed that Pakistan had offered the US an option to carry out joint operations against the Haqqanis if any of their ‘sanctuaries’ were found on Pakistani soil.
The development is seen as significant as Pakistan has long maintained that it cannot allow foreign boots on its soil and that it would never allow the Afghan war to be fought within its frontiers.
But the latest statement by the Foreign Minister appears to signal a shift in Pakistan’s stance. So has Pakistan changed its policy towards the Haqqanis?
On previous occasions when both Washington and Kabul pressed Pakistan to act against the alleged Haqqani sanctuaries, Islamabad contended that such a decision had to be taken with consensus by the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG).
The QCG involving Pakistan, Afghanistan, the US and China, was formed to work towards a political solution to the Afghan conflict. Pakistani officials in the past emphasized that the QCG had agreed that any option of use of force would be exercised as a last resort.
Also, on several occasions during background briefings by security and foreign office officials, the impression was made that Pakistan was opposed to getting dragged into the never-ending conflict in Afghanistan.
This policy was reiterated when Pakistan gave a detailed rejoinder to President Donald Trump’s strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia in August. The official statement clearly stated that Pakistan would not fight the Afghan war on its soil.
There has been no reaction to Asif’s statement from the army, which holds sway on such policy decisions. But the foreign minister – who was previously the defence minister – would certainly not have made such a statement off the cuff. The strategy must have been discussed and debated between civil and military authorities, according to observers.
But defence analyst Lieutenant General (retd) Amjad Shoaib is sceptical whether the military leadership was on board with the statement given by Asif.
Gen Shoaib, who is still closely connected with the military establishment, warned that the foreign minister’s statement would have negative implications for Pakistan.
“Making such an offer means that, in a way, you are admitting that there are safe havens on our soil,” he said. “This is contrary to our stated policy.”
A senior foreign office official dismissed the notion that Pakistan had changed its policy. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official explained that the foreign minister said Pakistan simply offered the option of joint operations “provided they found any sanctuaries on our soil”.
“Our position is very clear that there are no more terrorist safe havens on Pakistan soil and therefore no question will arise of any joint venture,” the official insisted.
At a recent media briefing, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) DG Major General Asif Ghafoor had said that no terrorist outfit had an “organised presence” in Pakistan.
But Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former ambassador to Afghanistan, believes that it appears Pakistan is buckling under US pressure. “The foreign minister’s statement does not make any sense,” Shah told The Express Tribune.
He said there was no point of making such an offer to the US or Afghanistan when Pakistan had already maintained that there were no safe havens of any terrorist groups on its soil.
Asif’s statement, according to analysts, seemingly also contradicts Pakistan’s stated policy that use of force cannot lead to a peaceful end to the 16-year long conflict in Afghanistan.