• Reveals operations against TTP recommenced after parleys with it collapsed • Dismisses as speculation talk of deal for Nawaz return • Confirms Pakistan will buy fighter jets from China

ISLAMABAD: Military spokesman Maj Gen Babar Iftikhar on Wednesday reaffirmed the resolve to complete fencing of the 2,600km-long border with Afghanistan, downplaying recent events of removal of fence and obstruction of the construction work by the Taliban fighters as “localised issues”.

Speaking at a media conference at the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) office, he said: “There is no problem, the fencing is continuing and will continue.”

The ISPR chief touched upon the issue of the fencing in his opening remarks, besides discussing it during the subsequent question and answer session.

“As far as the issue about the fencing that you are referring to … these are very localised problems. They have been addressed. The government is in touch with the Afghan interim government,” he maintained, emphasising the cordial nature of the relations with Afghanistan’s de facto government.

At least two incidents of Taliban commanders stopping fencing and seizing barbed wire caught media attention after their video clips went viral on social media. Pakistani officials held talks with the Taliban authorities on the matter after the first incident last month and both sides agreed on proceeding with fencing through mutual understanding on its alignment. However, another incident happened few days ago raising questions about the understanding.

Border fencing is a contentious issue between Pakistan and Afghanistan since it was started in 2017 to curb cross-border movement of terrorists and drug traffickers because Afghans dispute the status of Durand Line separating the two countries as the international border. Several deadly clashes have occurred between the two sides because of differences over the fencing project.

It was generally believed that Taliban would not have an issue with it. Therefore, these incidents came into spotlight when they occurred.

Notwithstanding Pakistan’s attempts to talk down the incidents, Taliban officials have acknowledged that it is an issue that needs to be resolved through dialogue. Even the terminology being used by the two sides is quite divergent. Taliban are still calling the border Durand Line but Pakistani officials take exception to that description and insist on it being seen as international border.

Afghan foreign ministry spokesman Abdul Qahar Balkhi had tweeted a day earlier: “Recently a few of incidents have taken place along Durand line between Afghanistan and Pakistan that have given rise to the need for authorities of the two sides to address the problem. IEA believing in addressing problems through understanding, talks and good neighborliness, will address this issue through diplomatic channels.”

Gen Babar, without directly referring to Taliban narrative on the fencing issue, challenged it in his remarks. “This fence on the Pak-Afghan international border is needed for security and regulation of trade and movement of the people living on both sides. Its purpose is not to divide people, but to make them safe.”

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, who is currently the acting culture and information minister, in an interview days after takeover of Kabul by the group in August last year, had rejected fencing of the border, saying: “The Afghans are unhappy and oppose the fencing. … The fencing has separated people and divided families.” More lately this position was reiterated by Taliban Defense Ministry spokesman Enayatullah Khwarzmi who, in a video posted on Twitter, said Pakistan had no right to fence the border and create a divide.

The ISPR chief while emphasising the importance being attached by Pakistan to the fencing said “martyrs blood was involved in erecting this fence. The fence of peace will be erected and God willing it will remain.”

Ninety-four per cent of the work on the project had been completed, he said.

Talks with TTP

Gen Babar said operations against terrorist group Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had been recommenced after breakdown of talks over certain “non-negotiable conditions”.

“The ceasefire ended on Dec 9 last year. As far as the talks with TTP are concerned, they are on hold and operations are continuing,” he said.

Prime Minister Imran Khan had in October last year disclosed that his government was holding talks with the TTP through Afghan Taliban’s facilitation. Later in November the two sides agreed to a month long ceasefire. Although the truce largely held during that period, the TTP refused to extend it further accusing Pakistani authorities of betrayal.

The military spokesman for the first time publicly explained how the dialogue started.

“Going into talks with these violent non-state actors at the request of Taliban government was a confidence building measure. After Aug 15, 2021, the government of Pakistan had given a requirement to the new interim government that the TTP should not use Afghan soil against Pakistan. So it was in that context that they gave this option that they would bring the TTP to the table and make them accept what Pakistan wanted. Those conditions were yet to be settled.”

Talking about the factors that caused the talks to fail, he said: “The TTP is not a monolith organisation. They have internal differences. There were some problems. There were some conditions that were non-negotiable for us.”

Gen Babar said the army would continue operations against the TTP till the time it got rid of “this menace.”

He denied reports that some TTP fighters were released during the ceasefire.

Nawaz Sharif deal

Gen Babar categorically denied that a “deal” was being worked out for the return of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif as “baseless speculation.”

Mr Sharif went to London in Nov 2019 on a nearly two months long bail for medical treatment. He has since then not returned to the country to face corruption charges and serve jail sentence in cases in which he had been convicted and sentenced.

The former prime minister denies the allegations and insists that they were politically motivated.

Over the past few weeks there has been an intense speculation in media that he would return soon through a deal.

“Ask those who are speculating, who is doing the deal, what is the objective/evidence? Ask for details,” Gen Babar said.

About the state of civil-military ties, he said, they were in good shape.

The spokesman confirmed the long talked about deal for purchase of J-10C fighter jets from China.

“Keeping in view the regional security matrix, Pakistan’s armed forces have to continuously enhance their capacity. Therefore, the (J-10C) procurement is also an exercise in capacity building. We have to evaluate what are the threats against us and staying within our economic means we upgrade the technology as we have to deal with those threats,” he said.

“It is a step to upgrade Pakistan Air Force fleet and get the best possible technology available because we know what kind of technology is being acquired on the other side,” he added.

He did not disclose the number of aircraft Pakistan planned to buy and the cost at which they were being purchased. However, it is widely believed that Pakistan planned to buy 25 J-10C jets.

Many think the J-10C deal is Pakistan’s answer to Rafales bought by India from France.

Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid had recently told journalists that J-10C jets would participate in the March 23 parade.

He warned that aggravation of the regional conventional imbalance due to India’s weapons buying spree was dangerous and could lead to an arms race.

Published in Dawn, January 6th, 2022

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