WASHINGTON: Pakistan is believed to have told US interlocutors that a major military offensive against the Taliban from both sides of the Afghan border, if ending in failure, will have negative consequences for the entire region.

Diplomatic sources, who spoke to Dawn, believe that the key element in the new US strategy for Afghanistan is to launch a two-pronged military offensive that inflicts a military defeat on the Taliban and forces them to join the Afghan reconciliation process on Kabul’s conditions.

Pakistanis do not disagree with the basic thrust of the Ameri­can argument but they have one major worry: What if it fails?

Mattis thinks civilians are capable of executing action

“We’ve been working with Pakistan, on the South Asia Strategy… and it’s how do we work together to take out the terrorists,” said US Secretary of Defence James Mattis while explaining the new strategy, which he said at this weekend news briefing was a strategy for entire South Asia.

Asked if he believed the civilian government was capable of assisting US counterterrorism efforts in the region, Mr Mattis said: “I would say the Pakistan government is capable of doing what we’re trying to do together, yes. Absolutely.”

Mr Mattis said that the US was engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the Pakistanis to “hammer this out … now that we’ve created the strategy, then you have to execute it.”

Secretary Mattis and State Rex Tillerson are the two cabinet level officials of the Trump administration who recently visited Pakistan to explain this strategy to senior civilian and military leaders, including Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa.

Mr Mattis said that senior US generals were maintaining regular communication with their Pakistani counterparts and on Thursday Gen Joseph Votel, who heads the US Central Command, spoke to Gen Bajwa as Washington announced the decision to suspend security assistance to Pakistan.

Asked if the US administration had studied the possible impact of this decision on its Afghan strategy, Mr Mattis said: “It’s all integrated into the strategy.”

“We’ll fight them,” the secretary said, when asked about his strategy for combating terrorists, including those from the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The remarks strengthen the speculation often heard at Washington’s diplomatic and political circles: President Donald Trump wants to be remembered as the US leader won the Afghan war and he wants to do it in his first term to increase his chances of winning the second.

Pakistani officials, who have interacted with US officials on this issue, say that they too have the same ambition: ridding the region, particularly Afghanistan, of militants.

They argue that no other country has suffered more at the hands of militants than Pakistan and no other country has been more successful in fighting them back either.

Secretary Mattis acknowledged both points at his weekend briefing at the Pentagon but also urged Islamabad to cooperate with the US in defeating the Afghan Taliban, including the Haqqani Network which, he says, has safe havens inside Pakistan and uses them to recuperate and re-launch attacks into Afghanistan.

“Pakistan has lost more troops total than all of Nato coalition combined in the fight against them. But we’ve had disagreements, strong disagreements on some issues, and we’re working those,” he said. He also acknowledged that the United States was holding private talks with Pakistan on how to win this war.

While Pakistanis reject the US charge that they have allowed the Haqqani Network to maintain safe havens, they appear more eager to understand the US plan to defeat the Taliban.

But they fear that a major military offensive, without engaging some Taliban factions in direct talks first, could be counter-productive. The Taliban might outlive this offensive too, and deal with it “lying low in their mountain fastness, as they did with previous offensives,” as one interlocutor said.

And in the process Pakistan will lose whatever influence it has. With all lines of communication closed, the Taliban will become even more dangerous, particularly for Pakistan, which has always faced the blowback of previous adventures in Afghanistan, whether launched by the Russians or Americans.

They remind their interlocutors that Pakistan is still coping with the consequences of Britain’s Afghan adventures. Those adventures led to the creation of a buffer zone — Fata, which later became the source of many troubles.

The Trump administration, however, does not seem much interested in the Pakistani argument, at least for now. But it would if the Taliban outlive the proposed offensive as well.

Published in Dawn, January 8th, 2018

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