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ISLAMABAD: Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz welcomes John McCain, the US Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman, along with his delegation on Sunday.— APP/File
ISLAMABAD: Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz welcomes John McCain, the US Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman, along with his delegation on Sunday.— APP/File

WASHINGTON: US Senator John McCain’s warning that if Pakistan does not stop supporting the Haqqani network, the United States should change its ‘behaviour’ towards the Pakistani nation reflects the changing mood in Washington towards a country once considered a close ally.

Senator McCain, who was in Islamabad recently before flying over to Kabul, said he had conveyed this message to Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders as well.

“We have made it very clear that we expect they [Pakistan] will cooperate with us, particularly against the Haqqani network and against terrorist organisations,” he said at a news briefing on Tuesday in Kabul.

“If they don’t change their behaviour, maybe we should change our behaviour towards Pakistan as a nation.”

According to some Pakistani sources, the terse statement came even though during a briefing by top military officials Mr McCain and his team were repeatedly informed that Pakistan had severed its links with members of the Haqqani network. They added that if any militants were found inside Pakistan they would be arrested and prosecuted.

Meanwhile, it is not just the United States which talks about forcing Pakistan to change its Afghan policy. In a recent statement, Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg issued a sterner warning. “It is absolutely unacceptable that a country provides sanctuary to terrorist groups which are responsible for terrorist attacks inside another country.”

A recent Pentagon report — which describes Pakistan as “the most influential external actor” in Afghanistan — explains that this new emphasis on Pakistan stems from a realisation that there can neither be peace nor stability in Afghanistan if Islamabad does not support the efforts to do so.

Senator McCain, a former Republican presidential candidate who now heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, also underlined a point that is often missing from such statements: despite recent successes, the United States is not winning this war, at least not yet.

“None of us would say that we are on a course to success here in Afghanistan,” he said at a news briefing at Nato-coalition headquarters. “That needs to change and quickly.”

The Pentagon report — “Enhancing security and stability in Afghanistan” — was presented to Senator McCain and his fellow lawmakers before they flew to the Pak-Afghan region and it too blames Pakistan for this lack of success, at least partly.

“Militant groups, including Taliban and Haqqani senior leadership, retained safe havens inside Pakistani territory. Sustained Pakistani efforts to disrupt active Haqqani network threats were not observed during the reporting period (Dec 1, 2016, through May 31, 2017),” says the report.

“The United States continues to be clear with Pakistan about steps it should take to improve the security environment and deny safe havens to terrorist and extremist groups,” the report adds.

Senator McCain, who has always been friendly to Pakistan, also expressed his desire to stay engaged with Islamabad in his statements in Pakistan and Afghanistan, a point that was also stressed in the Pentagon report.

The United States, Mr McCain said, was counting on Pakistan’s support to eliminate militancy, in particular the Haqqani network.

The Pentagon report, however, also explains why Pakistan continues to support certain militant groups, arguing that concerns about India’s growing influence in Afghanistan prevents Pakistan from playing a positive role in that country.

“Pakistan is the most influential external actor affecting Afghan stability and the outcome of both the US and Nato missions” there, says the Pentagon study, which also acknowledges that during the reporting period, Pakistan contributed operational support to a combined US and Afghan operation to combat the Khorasan chapter of the militant Islamic State group.

The US and Nato-led operation Resolute Mission continues to facilitate meetings between Afghanistan and Pakistan through its Tripartite Joint Operations Centre, the report adds.

The Pentagon points out that “Pakistan views the outcome of Afghanistan to be in its vital national interest and thus remains driven by its India-centric regional policy objectives”. And because of this “Afghan-oriented militant groups, including the Taliban and Haqqani network, retain freedom of action inside Pakistani territory and benefit from support from elements of the Pakistani government”.

Diplomatic observers in Washington say that since President Donald Trump has given to his defence secretary the authority to decide the size of US military presence in Afghanistan, the Pentagon report will also influence the new Afghan strategy that the White House Security Council is working on.

The new policy, expected later this month, is likely to focus on the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan and terrorist networks throughout the region.

Reports in the US media suggest that US National Security Adviser Gen H.R. McMaster and his team, tasked with making the new strategy, are also reviewing US-Pakistan relations and may suggest some radical changes.

The team may accept the Pentagon’s request for a more aggressive role in Afghanistan, such as once again authorising the military to target both Taliban and Haqqani network fighters. This may include authorising US aircraft to pursue fleeing militants into Pakistan.

Besides seeking more powers for the military, the Pentagon also wants Washington to use its relations with both Pakistan and Afghanistan to improve ties between the neighbours.

“Attacks in Afghanistan attributed to Pakistan-based militant networks continue to erode the Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship. Militant groups, including the Taliban and Haqqani network, continued to utilise sanctuaries inside Pakistan,” the report says.

“Pakistan’s belief that Afghanistan is not doing enough to prevent cross-border attacks, such as a suicide bombing at a shrine in Pakistan’s Sindh province in February 2017 that killed 72 people, further hampers bilateral relations,” the report adds.

Published in Dawn, July 6th, 2017