Strategic imperative for improved relations between the two countries is clear
Over the July 4 weekend, I made my annual trip to Afghanistan to visit US troops and military commanders. I also travelled to Pakistan to meet civilian and military leaders and to discuss counterterrorism efforts in the region. Two things are clear from that visit.
First, the US mission in Afghanistan is the same today as it was in 2001: to disrupt and defeat terrorist networks that seek to attack its interests and homeland and to deny them safe haven. That mission remains urgent, and it is unfortunately not over yet.
Second, the US mission in Afghanistan is immeasurably more difficult without Pakistan’s co-operation in taking on terrorists that operate across the Afghan-Pakistani border at will. That is why enhanced co-operation between Afghanistan and Pakistan is essential. Likewise, the strategic imperative for improved relations between the US and Pakistan is clear — for the safety of American troops and the success of their mission in Afghanistan, for the stability of the region and for the national security of both Pakistan and the US.
But recently, the US-Pakistan relationship has been strained. Among other things, limitations on US assistance to Pakistan and congressional reluctance to approve subsidies for the sale of defence articles have added to tensions between the two governments.
Despite this and other recent difficulties, US and Pakistani leaders cannot allow ambivalence and suspicion to fester. Common interests in counterterrorism, nuclear security and regional stability are too important and too urgent.
For too long, the US has viewed the bilateral relationship only through the prism of Afghanistan. To achieve real progress, the US must make clear its enduring commitment to Pakistan’s stability and economic growth.
For its part, Pakistan must take on and eliminate havens for terrorist groups such as the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad that operate within its borders, attack its neighbours and kill US forces. Pakistani leaders, including Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the army chief of staff General Raheel Sharif, have made recent commitments to do just that. Following through on these is critical.
This will be difficult for Pakistan. It will require political will and entail costly sacrifice in blood and treasure. That is why there will be sceptics in the country opposed to decisive efforts to defeat extremism.
But Mr Sharif and Gen Sharif have heard such pleas for restraint before. There were those who said it would be too hard to take on the Pakistani Taliban after it attacked a school in Peshawar and killed more than 130 children in 2014. Fortunately, Mr Sharif and Gen Sharif recognised the threat that these militants posed to Pakistan and took action. Thanks to these efforts, the perpetrator of the Peshawar school attack is no longer a threat to Pakistan or any other country.
In 2014, Pakistan launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan, a tribal area along the Afghan-Pakistani border where militants had operated with impunity for decades. During my visit to Miram Shah in North Waziristan, I saw the city’s bazaar that once housed bomb-making factories, arms dealers and office fronts for terrorist groups.
Thanks to the actions of Pakistani soldiers, this death market is no more. Now the military is building roads, border posts, schools and healthcare facilities across North Waziristan, a recognition that the failure to focus on economic development in the tribal areas in previous decades was a profound mistake.
This operation did not eliminate every haven nor did it catch every terrorist. And it will require years of follow-up to secure the gains it has achieved. But it has led to security improvements in the country. It shut down bomb-making factories and tunnel networks that menaced Afghanistan. And it displaced militants, many of whom fled into the crosshairs of US and Afghan forces ready and waiting on the other side of the border.
Pakistan has the opportunity to prove the sceptics wrong again by taking on terrorist groups that target Afghan, Indian and US forces in the region with the same energy with which it has prosecuted the fight against the Pakistani Taliban. By taking on all terrorist groups operating in its territory, Pakistan will find that the US remains willing and able to assist in this fight and develop an enduring strategic partnership.
The sooner the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan get down to the business of fighting their common terrorist enemies together, no matter where they hide, the better off the nations, the region and the world will be.
The writer is a US senator and chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services.
Courtesy: the Financial Times