The Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Raheel Sharif, has concluded his seven-day visit to the US and it appears to have been successful at least in terms of what has been publicly shared of his activities. There has been a range of meetings with the movers and shakers of the US military and intelligence establishment, at least one well-received speech that was robust in its commitment to fighting all terrorist groups in Pakistan — including the Haqqani network — and a re-swinging of the compass in terms of US-Pakistan military relations. Although not directly connected to the COAS visit to the US, the call made by US President Barack Obama to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif prior to his visit to India in January is another indicator that relations with the Americans have finally lifted themselves off the muddy bottom of the pond.
The visit of the COAS represents a sea-change in relations between Pakistan and the US and sets a seal on the military commitment to fighting terrorism in whatever form and by whatever name or under whatever flag it flies — and this includes any attempt by the Islamic State (IS) to gain a foothold in Pakistan. There is now no ambiguity about who is and who is not going to be on the receiving end of military attentions. It remains to be seen how this will play out on the ground militarily as much of the current fighting runs very close to the Afghan border, but a welcome clarity is emerging as to who the enemy really is. It is time — indeed overdue — that Pakistan moved on from the ‘good Taliban/bad Taliban’ scenario that never worked well in terms of translation to ground realities.
The visit of the COAS has signalled that the time of talks about talks and half-baked local treaties with groups that are little more than criminal gangs badged with the Taliban trappings — is past. Whether this will feed through to civilian political perceptions is also open to question, as there is little doubt that there are Taliban supporters in the mainstream of political life, but it has at least, and at last, made explicit exactly where the military under new leadership, stands.
This will be music to the ears of the Americans, who have long based their trust deficit in respect of Pakistan on the perception that we ran with the hare and hunted with the hounds, in effect, playing both ends against the middle. The relationship had reached the bottom of the pond in recent years, pushed down by a series of incidents beyond the drone strikes (of which there was no public mention in the COAS visit) and including the Raymond Davis affair, the killing of Osama bin Laden and the Nato/American strike that killed 25 of our soldiers. All have served to depress and poison relations, but several coincident factors are pointing towards an improvement.
The change in the Afghan presidency and the positive moves in the last month made by both Pakistan and Afghanistan are, if followed through, going to contribute to a lowering of tensions on all sides. Tensions on the Afghan border have remained high for much of the Karzai presidency, with regular cross-border incursions and shelling. Added to this, the ‘safe havens’ on the Afghan side of the border for terrorist groups has long been a thorn in the side of the Pakistan military. Any ramping up by the Afghan government of pressure on terrorist groups in its borderlands can only be welcomed.
What is yet indeterminate is whether the thaw in military-political relations will be mirrored by a reduction of a deep-seated anti-Americanism that has become all pervasive in the last decade. The majority of the population is innocent of the nuances of geopolitics, preferring the black and white certainties of their prejudices to the greys of reality. It is too soon to call the COAS visit a watershed, but it does allow a cautious optimism to break the horizon.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 24th, 2014.