WASHINGTON: For the first time ever, a US general informed a congressional panel on Thursday that Pakistan had “done things” against the Haqqani network that have been helpful to the war against terror.
Gen Joseph Votel, commander of the US Central Command, also told the Senate Armed Services Committee that India’s policy of diplomatically isolating Pakistan was “especially troubling” as it could lead to a nuclear conflict in South Asia.
Gen Votel, who is responsible for implementing the US military strategy in the Pak-Afghan region, described Pakistan as a key and critical partner and emphasised the need to stay engaged with Islamabad in the counterterrorism fight.
Washington endorses New Delhi’s claim of surgical strikes
His stance reflects the Pentagon’s desire to maintain its long-standing relationship with Pakistan’s military establishment and contrasts sharply with recent statements by some US lawmakers who urged the Trump administration to sever ties with Islamabad.
Gen Votel told the Senate panel that he has been encouraged by his meetings with Pakistan’s new army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and by his commitment to the fight against terror.
“They have done some things that have been helpful to us,” he said. “Most recently, they’ve supported Gen Joseph Nicholson in some places on the border, making sure they were well coordinated and doing the activities on their side of the border.”
Gen Nicholson is the commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan who, Gen Votel said, was working closely with Pakistan’s new army chief and his commanders to eliminate various terrorist groups hiding on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border.
“That’s a very positive sign and a move in [the] right direction. And they have done things against the principal concerns we have; the Haqqani network and Taliban,” Gen Votel said. “But we need that to be more persistent and continue to focus in that particular area. And so, we will continue to engage with partner Pakistan throughout this.”
In his written testimony, Gen Votel also elaborated the US defence establishment’s position on India-Pakistan relations, which appeared more even-handed than recent statements by some US lawmakers who clearly urged the Trump administration to abandon Pakistan for improving Washington’s already close relations with New Delhi.
Explaining the genesis of recent tensions between India and Pakistan, the Centcom commander explained how Indians remained concerned about the lack of action against India-focused militants based in Pakistan.
He noted that India “even responded militarily to terrorist attacks in India-held territory earlier this year”. Pakistan denies the Indian claim, saying that Indian forces never crossed into Pakistani territory but the US general endorsed the Indian claim.
“We assess that these types of attacks and the potential reactions, increase the likelihood for miscalculation by both countries,” he warned. “Furthermore, India’s public policy to ‘diplomatically isolate’ Pakistan, hinders any prospects for improved relations.”
The general warned that the Indian policy of isolating Pakistan was “especially troubling as a significant conventional conflict between Pakistan and India could escalate into a nuclear exchange, given that both are nuclear powers”.
Gen Votel also told US lawmakers that Pakistan’s increased focus on its eastern border detracts it from its efforts to secure the western border with Afghanistan from incursion by the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.
“Security along the western border will nevertheless remain a priority for Islamabad, as the Pakistani military seeks to expand border control and improve paramilitary security,” he added.
Responding to a question from Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, Gen Votel explained that eliminating the sanctuary of militant groups in Pakistan was key to improving the security environment in Afghanistan. And that’s why the US maintains consistent diplomatic pressure on Pakistan to take appropriate steps to deny safe haven and to improve the security of the tumultuous Af-Pak border region, he added.
“I think it is key to ensure that Pakistan and Afghanistan have a very good relationship. There certainly are tensions along the common border between those countries and so I think a key role that we can play is in helping move that relationship forward,” he said.
Ties with the Pakistan military
In his written testimony, as well as during the Q&A, Gen Votel regularly emphasised the need to maintain a strong relationship between the US and Pakistani military establishments.
“While there are challenges with respect to the US-Pakistani relationship, we have endeavoured to maintain a substantial level of engagement with our Pakistani military counterparts,” he said. “We continue to execute a robust joint exercise programme.”
He noted that most recently, the Pakistan Air Force sent airmen and aircraft to participate in Exercise Red Flag and Green Flag at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada this past summer. The Pakistani military also continues to support US efforts elsewhere in the region. The Pakistani Navy is the most consistent and longstanding participant, second only to the United States, in Combined Task Force (CTF)-150 (counterterrorism operations) and CTF-151 (counterpiracy operations) led by US Naval Forces Central.
“Our relationship with Pakistan remains a very important one. We look forward to continuing our engagement with the Pakistani military leadership, to include the new Chief of the Army Staff, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, in the days ahead as we work together in pursuit of shared interests,” he said.
Gen Votel also explained why Pakistan remains “a critical partner” in the counterterrorism fight.
According to him, 20 US-designated terrorist organisations operate in the Afghanistan-Pakistan sub-region and seven of them are in Pakistan.
“So long as these groups maintain safe haven inside of Pakistan they will threaten long-term stability in Afghanistan,” he said, adding that the US was particularly concerned about the Haqqani network, which posed the greatest threat to coalition forces operating in Afghanistan.