ISLAMABAD/PESHAWAR: Senior US commander Gen Joseph Votel on Saturday departed after his two-day visit to the country with “increased understanding of the counterterrorism and counter-insurgency efforts of the Pakistani government”.

According to a statement issued by the United States embassy, the general, who was also taken to North Waziristan that was once home to some of the most violent terrorist groups, including the Haqqani network, emphasised sustained cooperation with Pakistan and welcomed Islamabad’s commitment to bilateral ties.

“Military cooperation, and even stronger cooperation with Pakistan, is very important, and we deeply appreciate the hospitality and willingness to continue an honest and open relationship,” the commander of the US Central Command (Centcom) said in the statement issued at the conclusion of the visit.

He, nevertheless, underlined the need for ensuring that “Pakistani soil is not used to plan or conduct terrorist attacks against its neighbours”. This has been a consistent message from visiting US officials. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs and acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Alice Wells, who visited Pakistan earlier this month, too had left behind the same note.

Gen Votel’s third trip to Pakistan as Centcom commander took place as the US government continued a review of its South Asia policy amid speculation of a looming rupture in ties because of a strong opinion in the White House that Pakistan had not been an honest partner in the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan.

However, the US defence department believes that Pakistan’s support is crucial for operations in Afghanistan and any eventual peace deal with the Taliban. Therefore, the department has been counselling against a split even though Defence Secretary James Mattis had refused to certify that Pakistani actions had denied safe haven to Taliban and the Haqqani network. Reimbursements for Pakistani actions in support of US military operations under the ‘Coalition Support Fund’ were cut because of the defence secretary’s refusal issue the certification.

Gen Votel tried to assuage the concerns in Islamabad about a complete breakdown in relationship by noting: “We are extraordinarily pleased to continue these enduring relationships.”

The embassy said the commander had in his meetings “focused on the need to further strengthen US and Pakistani military-to-military relations… to ensure greater regional security and stability”.

Chief of the Army Staff Gen Qamar Bajwa had a day earlier, in his meeting with Gen Votel, renewed the commitment to cooperate with US-led coalition troops in Afghanistan and Afghan security forces for “improved security environment in Pakistan-Afghanistan border region”. Gen Bajwa had at the same time stressed acknowledgment of Pakistan’s sacrifices in the fight against terrorism.

A similar resolve was expressed by Prime Minister Shahid Khaqqan Abbasi when Gen Votel called on him.

PM Abbasi agreed on cooperation for dealing with “regional concerns” and underscored that the ongoing policy review in the US should recognise Pakistan’s efforts in fighting terrorism and its commitment to peace and security in Afghanistan.

In North Waziristan, the US delegation headed by Gen Votel briefed about the army’s operations in the area and the Pakistan-Afghanistan border security mechanism through enhanced surveillance measures.

It was also briefed about progress in socio-economic development, including return of displaced people to their native areas.

The US delegation appreciated efforts and sacrifices of the army and local tribes for re-establishing peace and order in the area and realised the importance of the bilateral border security coordination.

Later, the delegation visited the Army Public School in Miramshah and interacted with the students.

Upon arrival in the tribal region, the delegation was received by Peshawar Corps Commander Lt Gen Nazir Ahmad Butt, while Chief of General Staff Lt Gen Bilal Akbar accompanied it.

Published in Dawn, August 20th, 2017