Have Pakistan and the US struck a secret deal? Was the killing of Umar Khalid Khorasani, the chief of outlawed Jamaatul Ahrar (JuA), an offshoot of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), part of that understanding?
Since the Pakistan Army rescued the American-Canadian couple from the Haqqani Network on October 11th, there has been a dramatic turnaround in otherwise strained ties between Islamabad and Washington. The events that followed the rescue of American Caitlan Coleman, her Canadian husband, Joshua Boyle, and their two sons appeared to be carefully choreographed. The Trump administration officials, starting from the president to his deputy and from the secretary of state to the defence secretary, have issued statements appreciating the Pakistan Army’s prompt action.
Many would be curious to know why Trump blew hot and cold? A few weeks ago he was gunning for Pakistan and is now completely the opposite. The answer is: he desperately needs Pakistan’s support for Afghanistan’s endgame. He wants to succeed in Afghanistan where his predecessors — Obama and Bush— could not. For that, he can go to any extent.
In order to achieve that elusive goal, Trump is apparently relying on his business skills to deal with Pakistan. The pace with which the relationship between Pakistan and the US has transformed in a matter of a few days suggests a quid pro quo. Here is Trump’s offer: you give us the Haqqanis, we give you the TTP and the JuA.
And the deal appears to be already in the implementation phase. Within days of the dramatic rescue of American-Canadian family, the US and Afghan forces returned Pakistan’s favour by launching drone and conventional air strikes in Paktia and Khost, considered a stronghold of not only the Haqqani Network but also of anti-Pakistan terrorist groups such as the JuA. This has been Pakistan’s longstanding demand seeking decisive action to eliminate terrorist sanctuaries of the TTP, the JuA and other militant groups inside Afghanistan. Pakistan believes that most of the recent terrorist attacks inside the country had been orchestrated by these groups from their bases in Afghanistan. Until now, response from the US and Afghanistan was not forthcoming. The reason was that both Washington and Kabul accused Islamabad of harbouring and supporting the Afghan Taliban, particularly the Haqqani Network. So their lack of action against anti-Pakistan elements on Afghan soil in a way was a message for Islamabad that “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”
Against this backdrop, the US and Afghan forces action against the JuA is a significant move and a clear departure from their earlier approach. However, it is not possible that such an action is being taken from across the border without Pakistan offering anything in return. The way the Pakistan Army acted swiftly to ensure the recovery of the American-Canadian couple showed that it is willing to take on the Haqqani Network. More significantly, Pakistan is not only supporting but also sharing crucial intelligence with the US and Afghan forces to eliminate high-value targets across the border. This is a clear shift in Pakistan’s approach as it has long advocated against the use of force in Afghanistan. It has always insisted on dialogue to end the conflict in Afghanistan. Trump’s new strategy is primarily to soften insurgents in Afghanistan before any meaningful talks can take place with them. Through the use of force, the US is pressuring the Taliban to come to the negotiating table as it wants to deal with the group from a position of strength. This approach also suits Pakistan.
Another hurdle in the way of Pak-US cooperation is India’s growing footprint in Afghanistan. Islamabad’s purported support to the Taliban stems from this very factor. While the US and Afghan forces have finally started pounding the hideouts of the TTP and the JuA, Pakistan hopes that Washington would persuade India to stop supporting such groups. In return, the US certainly expects Pakistan to take action against anti-India groups.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 23rd, 2017.
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