WASHINGTON: The United States would like to maintain close ties with Pakistan and to use those ties to persuade Islamabad to change its policies towards Afghanistan, US lawmakers and a top American general indicated at the latest Congressional hearing on the situation in Afghanistan.
Although the hearing focused on Afghanistan, Pakistan was mentioned 73 times in this hours-long meeting on Wednesday while there were also dozens of indirect references to the country’s role in the Afghan conflict.
Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, set the tone of the discussion in his opening statement, saying that “succeeding in Afghanistan will also require a candid evaluation of America’s relationship with Pakistan”.
And the hearing’s sole witness, Gen John Nicholson Jr, commander of the US and international forces in Afghanistan, advocated for working with Pakistan and its military to stabilise Afghanistan and defeat extremists.
He disagreed with a suggestion that cutting off US aid to Pakistan would force it to cooperate. Every time he was asked about stopping US assistance, he emphasised the need for diplomatic engagement with Islamabad.
Senator McCain, a regular visitor to both Afghanistan and Pakistan, underlined the US dilemma on this issue. Acknowledging that thousands of Pakistanis had sacrificed their lives in the fight against terrorists, he said: “But the fact remains that numerous terrorist groups still operate within Pakistan, attack its neighbours and kill US forces.”
The senator, who also visited North Waziristan last year, praised Pakistan for conducting a successful military operation in that area, but said that this was not helping the US forces combating terrorists in Afghanistan.
“Put simply, our mission in Afghanistan is immeasurably more difficult, if not impossible, while our enemies possess a safe haven in Pakistan. These sanctuaries must be eliminated,” he said.
Senator McCain urged the new US administration to work with Congress to “determine what additional actions are necessary, to ensure that the enemies we continue to fight in Afghanistan can find no sanctuary in Pakistan or in any other country”.
Senator Jack Reed, the committee’s ranking Democrat, insisted that the alleged Pakistani support for extremist groups in Afghanistan, “whether it is passive or deliberate, must end if we and Afghanistan are to achieve necessary levels of security”.
He pointed to another dilemma that US forces in the region face, militants fleeing to Afghanistan when Pakistan launches an operation against them in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata).
“What we need to do concerning the safe haven issue in Pakistan?” asked Senator McCain.
“Sir, it’s very difficult to succeed on the battlefield when your enemy enjoys external support and safe haven. I think we need to continue to work closely with Pakistan,” the general replied.
“The Pakistanis did some good work in North Waziristan, right?” asked the senator. “They did, sir. And we have great respect for the operation they conducted in Waziristan. It was a very large and significant operation and they suffered heavy casualties,” said Gen Nicholson.
“But the problem is the Haqqani network, especially in places like Quetta, right?” asked Senator McCain.
“Sir, that’s correct. We still have enemy sanctuary in areas like Quetta, like you mention, with the Taliban leadership, and other cities within the tribal areas for the Haqqani leadership,” Gen Nicholson said.
“You have had some dealings with the new chief of staff at the army. I don’t know if you’ve had any dealings with the new head of ISI, but does it make sense to focus our persuasive efforts on specific sub elements within Pakistan?” asked Senator Reed.
“Sir, I have a great respect for the Pakistan military and its leaders. I’m developing, I believe, a positive and constructive relationship with Gen Bajwa and his team. And again, we have great respect for the operations they’ve conducted in Fata,” Gen Nicholson replied.
“The Pakistan people have also suffered from the scourge of terrorism. And I quite sincerely want to eliminate those terrorists that are attacking their society,” he said.
The general then explained how the United States forces could help Pakistan fight the terrorists, noting that recently US counterterrorism forces killed Omar Khalifa, the head of the Tariq Gidar Group who perpetrated the “horrendous attack” on the Peshawar Army School, which killed over 130 children. Also, in a raid last year in eastern Afghanistan, US forces rescued Haider Gilani, the son of a former Pakistani prime minister.
Emphasising the need to improve cooperation between the US and Pakistani forces, Gen Nicholson suggested increasing the pressure applied on the Haqqanis and the Taliban on the Pakistan side of the border.
Senator Angus King, an independent lawmaker who caucuses with the Democrats, asked the general if “cutting off funding” would persuade Pakistan to eliminate the alleged safe havens in Fata.
The general, however, suggested conducting “a holistic review” of America’s Pakistan policy and to “sit down with” Pakistani leaders to do so.
“We have many areas where we could be working together for our mutual benefit. And I think this is a key to the future,” he said.
“I’m personally committed to this and working with my Pakistani counterparts… in my initial conversations with my chain of command, this is a high priority for all of us.”
Gen Nicholson expressed hope that the new administration in Washington would conduct this “holistic review”.When Republican Senator David Perdue also suggested using US aid to Pakistan as leverage, Gen Nicholson underlined the need for “working closely with the Pakistanis to eliminate or reduce sanctuary for the Taliban, Haqqani and other groups inside Pakistan”.
“Are we getting the kind of cooperation that we need from the Pakistanis?” asked Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat.
“We’d like to see greater cooperation,” the general replied. “Where, specifically has it been deficient?” asked the senator.
“Specifically sir, with respect to the Haqqani network and the Taliban sanctuaries and presence inside Pakistan,” the general said.
Asked to identify the areas of concern, Gen Nicholson named Fata, areas around Quetta and Waziristan, where, he claimed, the Haqqani leadership resided. Those areas, he said, had bedevilled US forces for years.
“Are we doing enough to bring pressure to bear on the Pakistani government to be more aggressive and active?” Senator Blumenthal asked.
“I think we need to do a holistic review of our relationship with Pakistan. There are many areas of common interest, where we could work together. And we want to achieve progress in these areas but you’re absolutely right, it’s been frustrating,” the general said.
“We need to keep military pressure on the Taliban and… through diplomatic engagement with the Pakistanis to increase pressure on that side of the border. So this would be a whole of government approach but the objective of this would be an eventual reconciliation. This will take some years I believe,” he added.