Islamabad denies it is harboring terrorists and calls on Washington to assume a more constructive, diplomatic approach
ISLAMABAD—Pakistan and the United States are once again locking horns over the issue of alleged save havens for terrorists in Pakistan.
Washington has long accused elements of the Pakistani government of harboring members of terrorist groups, including the Haqqani Network—which is ideologically aligned with the Afghan Taliban—in the remote and largely lawless tribal regions along the Afghanistan border.
Both organizations have been at the forefront of the insurgency against U.S. and multinational forces during the 16-years-long war.
Last month, the commander of the western military coalition in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, told local media that, “The U.S. knows about the[ir] presence in Quetta and Peshawar city of Pakistan. Support for terrorists and insurgents has to be reduced, has to be stopped.”
“I am primarily focused on activities inside Afghanistan but other officials are looking into the issue of sanctuaries in Pakistan,” he added.
His statements came after U.S. President Donald Trump recently accused Islamabad of failing to eliminate the purported safe havens, the existence of which Pakistan denies.
“There are no safe havens of militants in Pakistan,” a spokesperson for Pakistan’s Foreign Office, Nafees Zakrya, told The Media Line.
To Pakistan’s dismay, however, last week emerging economic powers—Brazil, Russia, India and China (the “BRICs”)—designated as terrorist organizations, among others, the Taliban, Haqqani Network, Islamic State and Al-Qa’ida along with some of its affiliates. The implication was that Islamabad was at the very least turning a blind eye to the presence of these groups, described as a major threat to Southeast Asia, along with lesser-known Pakistan-based terrorists such as Lashkar-e-Taiba.
The states urged the United Nations to develop a “genuinely broad international counter-terrorism coalition” to combat militancy.
In response, Nafees Zakrya told The Media Line that “Pakistan is also seriously concerned about the threat posed by terrorism and extremism in the region.… The rise of extremist ideologies and intolerance reduces social satisfaction by systematically targeting minorities.”
He then highlighted the fact that many terrorist groups have been responsible for extreme acts of violence against the Pakistani people.
According to off-the-record conversations with Pakistani government and military officials, the Haqqani Network, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan as well as Al-Qa’ida have indeed been operating from the North Waziristan tribal area of Pakistan, which shares a border with Afghanistan.
As a result, the Pakistani military has conducted multiple offensives in these areas which have eliminated some terrorist sanctuaries and reduced the capability of groups in others from launching attacks against foreign forces in Afghanistan.
For example, the Pakistani army launched a series of major operations in North Waziristan following a deadly attack on Pakistan’s Jinnah International Airport on 8 June 2014, which killed 22 people.
Investigations later revealed that the terrorists involved were foreigners belonging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an Al-Qa’ida-linked organization that works closely with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, commonly referred to as the Pakistani Taliban.
Operation “Zarb-eAzb” targeted the local bases of these groups, with as many as 30,000 soldiers taking part in what Pakistan’s government described as a “comprehensive operation” to flush out all terrorists hiding in North Waziristan.
More recently, “Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad” began in February 2017, following a resurgence in terrorist attacks. Together, the Pakistani military claims the campaigns have destroyed many of the safe havens as terrorist groups were forced to take refuge on the Afghan side of the border.
Ostensibly, Pakistan is a party to the U.S.-led “War on Terror,” which was initiated following the attacks of September 11, 2001. It is a decision that analysts say transformed Islamabad into a target, and there have in fact been many attacks against Pakistani military assets since then, with thousands of civilians likewise having been killed as a result.
In response, the army has been forced to conduct many offensives, which include: Operation Al-Mizan (2002-2006); Operation Rah-Haq (November 2007); Operation Sher-e-Dil (September 2008); Operation Sirat-e-Mustaqeem (July, 2008); Operation Rah-e-Rast (May 2009); Operation Rah-e-Nijaat (October 2009); and Operation Koh-e-Sufaid (July 2011).
“Pakistani forces must be appreciated for suppressing militancy from within Pakistan and throughout the region,” Pakistani defense analyst Colonel (ret.) Tariq told The Media Line. “The issue of sanctuaries and safe havens is important, however, I am convinced there is no such room for such places on Pakistan’s soil.”
Echoing these sentiments, on August 25 Pakistan’s powerful Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa claimed there were no safe havens for terrorists due to what he called decisive military operations in the remote tribal areas.
In this respect, there is a perception in Pakistan that Trump lacks a coherent policy on Afghanistan and is thus disregarding the decades-long importance of Washington-Islamabad ties—especially as it relates to fighting terrorism with the goal of achieving some form of political solution to the conflict. There exists a sense that the U.S. president is jumping to hasty conclusions and is demonstrating ingratitude for the sacrifices that Pakistan has to date made in the effort.
Pakistani analysts say that the root causes of the tensions in Afghanistan cannot be adequately addressed through populist campaigns that may or may not result in short-term solutions, while alienating Pakistan, a longstanding U.S ally. Instead, policy makers in Islamabad believe that Trump should be investing resources in long-term diplomacy rather than reinforcing the American military campaign there, which, as history suggests, has served only to prolong the war.
In this respect, insurgents have long shown a great capacity to reemerge stronger even after suffering temporary defeats at the hands of foreign forces. Moreover, war has the propensity to radicalize individuals and push them into the hands of terrorist groups.
Accordingly, many leaders in Pakistan disapprove of further “surgical” operations in Afghanistan that might, as the adage says, eventually lead to the death of the patient. They therefore are currently advocating for the strengthening of alliances with regional actors, including Pakistan, whose support the Americans need if there is ever to be a long-term cure to the malaise that has plagued Afghanistan for a generation.