ISLAMABAD: Making it clear that the US patience was running out with Pakistan’s indecision on military action against militants’ hideouts in North Waziristan, Vice President Joe Biden unequivocally told his interlocutors here on Wednesday that the Americans would not wait indefinitely.
Mr Biden, who was here on a day-long visit to Pakistan, held talks with both civilian and military leaders, mainly focused on the endgame in Afghanistan, the existence of militant sanctuaries in Pakistan’s tribal areas and the radicalisation of Pakistani society.
The US vice president stayed for about six hours in the federal capital during which he separately met President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani before concluding his visit by calling on Army Chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani at the military headquarters where, sources say, most of the substantive discussions about an operation in North Waziristan, reconciliation in Afghanistan and other issues pertaining to the coalition force’s operations in Afghanistan were held.
North Waziristan has been a source of friction in relations between the two allies because of the US demand for a military offensive in the region along Pak-Afghan border which Washington says are the launching pad for violence in Afghanistan. But Pakistani military leadership has been resisting the American pressure by insisting that it was constrained by operations against militants in other areas and efforts to consolidate the gains made in the fight against extremists. The army says it will move into North Waziristan at a time of its own choosing.
US difficulties in Afghanistan and its desperation to have a fully cooperative Pakistan were always evident, but they became more obvious after Mr Biden’s Kabul visit.
When he departed for Afghanistan, the White House announced: “The primary purpose of the trip is to assess progress towards the transition to Afghan-led security beginning this year.” But towards the conclusion of his trip the focus of American timeline had shifted to 2014.
The vice president did not offer any new economic and security package to help shore up the beleaguered government. Sources said he only reiterated his pledge to redouble efforts to get the Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (RoZs) legislation adopted by the Congress and help increase Pak-US trade.
Mr Biden, on his second visit to Pakistan, was said to have come here “holding carrots and brandishing sticks”. Apart from the commitment on RoZs and trade the only carrot he carried was apparently an increased deference to Pakistan’s sensitivities. The few sticks he brandished in his private conversations with Pakistani leaders were also sensitively wrapped in diplomatic jargon.
The importance that Mr Biden attached to his visit to the army headquarters was evident from the fact that he replied to most of the issues which General Kayani raised in a document he had given to President Obama on the sidelines of the last round of Strategic Dialogue held in Washington.
In the much-publicised document, whose content hasn’t been officially disclosed by either side Gen Kayani had listed the ‘complaints of people of Pakistan’ against the US, including the transactional nature of its ties with Islamabad, America’s inner desire to defang and destabilise Pakistan and its indifference to Pakistan’s strategic concerns particularly vis-à-vis India.
During his close to 16-minute press conference alongside Prime Minister Gilani, Mr Biden largely focused on the concerns communicated by Gen Kayani, which he described as ‘misconceptions about US actions and even more importantly about US intentions with regard to Pakistan’. And as if he wanted to respond to Gen Kayani in his own words, he started his reply to those concerns by saying: “I am not talking about leadership, I am talking about what has been in the public discourse.”
He sought to dispel a conception that the US had drawn Pakistan into war. He said violent extremists were not a threat only to the United States, but also to Pakistan and the entire civilised world. He stressed that Al Qaeda and the Taliban continued to pose a threat to the US and its interests from their sanctuaries in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
“They (Al Qaeda) continue to plot attacks against the United States and our interests to this very day and they have, not with your help, but they have found refuge in the most remote portions of your country.”
Attempting to make the Pakistanis wake up to the threat the extremists posed to the country and its people, he cautioned that “societies that tolerate such actions wind up being consumed by those actions.”
Mr Biden set the tone for the Islamabad trip by voicing concern in Kabul over Pakistan being too soft with the Taliban.
“It is going to require more pressure on the Taliban from Pakistani side of the border than we have been able to observe so far,” the vice president said in the Afghan capital.
In an apparent reference to the drone attacks and occasional intrusion by Nato jets seen here as a violation of country’s sovereignty, he said Washington was working with Islamabad to restore sovereignty violated by extremists.
“I would respectfully suggest that it is the extremists who violate Pakistan’s sovereignty and corrupt its good name. The US is working to restore and strengthen sovereignty in areas where extremists violated it.”
Other ‘misgivings’ that he tried to dispel included the impression that America disrespected Islam; its (US) policies favoured India and sought to weaken and dismantle Pakistan; and that Americans would abandon the region leaving Pakistan behind to deal with the mess. “We want what you want – a strong, stable, prosperous and democratic Pakistan at peace with itself and its neighbours, including India. We want that not just for your sake but we wish your success because it’s in our own interest, it’s in the interest of the entire region and I would argue the entire world.”
According to private TV channels, top Foreign Office officials told a group of journalists after Mr Biden’s press conference that Pakistan hoped there would not be “any new great game pertaining to Afghanistan” after the United States withdrew its troops from there.
The vice president also rejected the notion that the US was inclined to maintaining the transactional nature of its relationship with Pakistan. To support his contention he pointed to the renewed Strategic Dialogue and the $7.5 billion Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act, which he reminded was finalised in “very difficult economic times”.
After these clarifications, Mr Biden proceeded directly to the army headquarters without taking questions from journalists, citing schedule limitation.
Officially nothing was said about the all-important meeting at the GHQ except for a customary two-liner from Inter-Services Public Relations: “Mr Joseph R. Biden, United States Vice President called on Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani today. The visiting dignitary remained with him for some time and discussed matters of mutual interest.”
But sources insist that Mr Biden was very ‘focused, pointed and candid’ in his discussions urging the military leadership to give up its ambivalence on the operation in North Waziristan.