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Pakistan sets terms for help in anti-terror fight

Updated August 25, 2017
PRIME Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi chairs a meeting of the National Security Committee on Thursday.—APP
PRIME Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi chairs a meeting of the National Security Committee on Thursday.—APP

• Top security meeting rejects Trump’s allegations of duplicity
• Warns against scapegoating Pakistan for failures in Afghan war
• Takes exception to role assigned to India in new regional policy

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s top civilian and military leadership on Thursday strongly rejected US President Donald Trump’s allegations of insincerity and duplicity in the fight against terrorism and set conditions for future counterterrorism cooperation with Washington and Kabul, specifically the removal of hideouts in eastern Afghanistan.

The government’s formal and comprehensive response to the Trump administration’s policy on Afghanistan and South Asia came after a meeting of the National Security Committee (NSC), which was chaired by Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and attended by ministers for defence, foreign affairs, finance, and interior, the national security adviser, services chiefs and heads of intelligence agencies and military operations.

The NSC was specially convened for deliberations on the US policy and formulating the ‘comprehensive response’.

Also read: Pakistan wants the US's trust, not its financial assistance: COAS

The government had earlier given a preliminary response to the policy after a meeting of the federal cabinet. The army too had expressed its views through a statement after a meeting between Chief of the Army Staff Gen Qamar Bajwa and US Ambassador David Hale on Wednesday.

The statement issued after the NSC meeting was a detailed rejoinder to all elements of concern in the new US policy and President Trump’s speech — the allegations about sanctuaries, claims about taking billions and billions of dollars in aid from Washington, fears about nuclear security, and the formalisation of India’s role in Afghanistan.

The bottom line of the response is that Pakistan remains committed to international efforts for peace and stability in Afghanistan, but it also wants its concerns to be addressed, including the main issue of sanctuaries on Afghan soil.

The demand for elimination of sanctuaries was thrice mentioned in the unusually long statement.

Counterterrorism cooperation with the US and Afghanistan, the NSC said, was contingent upon: “focusing on core issues of eliminating safe havens inside Afghanistan, border management, return of refugees and reinvigorating the peace process for a political settlement in Afghanistan.”

At another point, the NSC underscored that it would “more specifically” want “effective and immediate US military efforts to eliminate sanctuaries harbouring terrorists and miscreants on the Afghan soil, including those responsible for fomenting terror in Pakistan”.

Separately, it said: “Pakistan is committed to not allowing its soil to be used for violence against any other country. We expect the same from our neighbours.”

The United States, it may be recalled, had already signalled its willingness to address the issue of removal of safe havens in Afghanistan from where terrorists have been launching attacks in Pakistan. In the first statement issued by the State Department on behalf of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson after President Trump’s speech, it had been said that it was “vital to US interests that Afghanistan and Pakistan prevent terrorist sanctuaries”.

Pakistan has long demanded action against those sanctuaries, but there has been no serious action so far, except for a brief campaign after the Army Public School tragedy in December 2014. Several terrorists wanted by Pakistan reportedly move freely within Afghanistan and, at least according to one statement by former TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan, after he surrendered to security forces earlier this year, the terrorists were given special identification documents by the Afghan authorities to facilitate their movements there.

Terrorists from their sanctuaries in Afghanistan carry out attacks on Pakistani border posts and, according to the ISPR, multiple attacks attempted on the night of Aug 13 were foiled because of improved security arrangements.

New Indian role

In very categorical terms, the NSC expressed its reservations about the role assigned to India in the new regional policy that extends from economic assistance and development in Afghanistan to peace and security in South Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region.

Pakistan fears that India with its new role would work to exacerbate its security concerns.

Questioning the role given to India, the NSC said: “India cannot be a net security provider in the South Asia region when it has conflictual relationships with all its neighbours and is pursuing a policy of destabilising Pakistan from the east and the west.”

The committee also pointed towards Indian interference in the internal affairs of neighbouring countries and use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy.

“The committee condemned state-inflicted repression on the people of Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir and reiterated Pakistan’s continued diplomatic, political and moral support for their struggle for self-determination,” the statement said.

Pakistan’s worries about Indian role would be a major irritant in Pak-US engagement on the new policy. Secretary Tillerson had said the US would engage with Pakistan “in a very serious and thorough way on its expectations and the conditions that go with that”.

Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif was earlier scheduled to travel to the US for bilateral talks with Secretary Tillerson next week, but the trip has been delayed for a later date after his tour of China and other friendly countries.

Nuclear security

In his speech, President Trump renewed the fears of nuclear security when he identified as a major US interest in Afghanistan and Pakistan the effort to “prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists”.

The NSC dismissed those apprehensions as baseless and reminded that Pakistan has an internationally-recognised “robust and credible command and control system” and it is “a responsible nuclear weapon state”.

Terrorist sanctuaries

The committee went to lengths to reject the US accusation of terrorist sanctuaries on Pakistani soil that was also rebuffed in the preliminary statement as “false narrative”.

It was said that Pakistan’s indiscriminate action against all terrorist groups was proven by the improved security environment in the country. Pakistan’s commitment to fighting terrorism, it maintained, was also demonstrated by its counterterrorism cooperation with the US in the past, something which was also acknowledged by Mr Trump.

“We consider the lives of the citizens of other countries as sacrosanct as those of our own,” the statement said.

President Trump’s claim of “paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars” was said to be “misleading”. The statement said the money given to Pakistan was reimbursement of the “part of the cost of ground facilities and air corridors used by the United States for its operations in Afghanistan” and not any “any financial aid or assistance”.

The NSC called for recognition of the sacrifices made by Pakistan in the fight against terrorism in terms of tens of thousands of civilian and security personnel martyred and $120 billion in economic losses suffered by the country’s economy. It warned that scapegoating Pakistan for failures in the Afghan war would not help in achieving the objective of stabilising war-ravaged Afghanistan.

Published in Dawn, August 25th, 2017