DECIPHERING the foreign policy and national security statements of the PML-N government is becoming an increasingly odd affair. There is the known, but unacknowledged, gap between the priorities and preferences of the political government and the military leadership.

There is also the pressure that the civilian foreign policy advisers of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appear to be under from the military to publicly articulate and defend policies that are crafted in GHQ.

But vastly experienced civilians, like foreign affairs adviser Sartaj Aziz, appear to be adding to the confusion rather than trying to find a consistent and defendable line on vital issues.

Consider Mr Aziz’s latest pronouncement: citing fears about so-called blowback from militant groups, the foreign affairs adviser appeared to defend the state’s lack of action against sanctuaries of the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban on Pakistani soil.

While Mr Aziz made familiar reference to the state’s decision that action against militant groups should follow some kind of sequence, he appeared to suggest that decisions have yet to be made regarding “how far” and on “what scale” the state will eventually act against some groups.

Has Mr Aziz backtracked on the state’s explicit commitment that there will no longer be a policy of differentiating between so-called good and bad Taliban?

That would be an alarming and astonishing reversal made all the worse by the casual — almost careless — manner in which the remarks were given. Perhaps Mr Aziz was hoping to pre-empt pressure from a delegation of US senators visiting Pakistan.

But the foreign adviser’s remarks to a wire agency require immediate and emphatic clarification — does the state of Pakistan adhere to a policy of not differentiating between so-called good and bad Taliban?

And, if so, what is the strategy to progressively act against all militant groups that have found sanctuary on or are operating from Pakistani soil?

Surely, the remarks of a senior official such as Mr Aziz cannot simply be dismissed as a misstatement or a bungled attempt at explaining existing policy.

The existing policy — reinforced time and again since the start of Operation Zarb-i-Azb and enshrined in the National Action Plan — is to treat all militant groups as a problem that must be solved by eventual elimination.

That policy clarity matters, even if operational and strategic choices so far do not immediately reflect that.

To reiterate, the security of Pakistan and the region lies in an unambiguous policy against militancy and terrorism in all their manifestations by all countries.

Pakistan’s pledge to try and deliver the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table should not be allowed to become a reason to differentiate between militant groups over the long term.

What threatens the stability of Afghanistan inevitably threatens the stability of Pakistan — the security establishment and political leadership here cannot lapse into old, damaging habits of denial and obfuscation.

Published in Dawn, July 3rd, 2016

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