NEW YORK - US and Pakistani officials are considering joint counterterrorism campaigns in Afghanistan and Pakistan, say American officials familiar with the proposals, in what would mark an upturn in cooperation after more than a year of rancorous relations.
The plans are considered, at best, promising. US officials have long pressed Pakistani counterparts to target the Haqqani group, without success. Washington says the militant network acts like a ‘veritable arm’ of the Pakistani security forces, a charge Pakistan denies.
“It’s a good beginning,” said Vali Nasr, a former top State Department official who is dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
He pointed out that in previous joint campaigns, Pakistan has asked to be involved in all aspects of intelligence-gathering. But the US side has looked sceptically at Pakistani requests to share information about coming raids. “It’s always been a sticking point,” Nasr said.
The potential US-Pakistani plans were discussed in meetings in Washington this week involving Pakistan’s new intelligence chief and top officials of the Central Intelligence Agency, State Department and Pentagon, as well as top lawmakers, said the officials familiar with the talks. Also discussed was Pakistan’s demand for a halt to CIA drone strikes in Pakistan. No agreement was reached on any changes to the programme, officials said.
US and Pakistani officials both described this week’s meetings as productive and indicative of a higher level of trust than in previous meetings.
Until now, counterterrorism negotiations between the sides have been largely on hold after US forces killed 24 Pakistani troops near Afghanistan’s border in November. As tensions rose over the US’s refusal to apologise for the incident, the new Pakistani intelligence chief Lt-Gen Zahirul Islam deferred a June invitation from the CIA to visit Washington. Counterterrorism relations between the countries had already become tense after earlier incidents last year in which a CIA contractor killed two Pakistanis and the US mounted the covert raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
A US decision in July to say it was sorry for the Pakistani soldiers’ deaths jump-started talks over the highly contentious CIA drone programme and US demands that Pakistan target the Haqqani network. Pakistan then announced that Gen Islam would make his first trip to Washington since becoming chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency in March.
“Pakistan’s democratic government is committed to moving forward with the US in many shared goals,” said Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, Sherry Rehman, saying her government is working to reshape its relationships in the region. “Better ties with the US can help us in this broader goal of creating equities for peace instead of volatility in a region that is going through many security transitions.”
She has hosted a number of recent high-level dinners and meetings to make Pakistan’s case. One dinner last week included seven senators from both parties influential on national security issues, including John McCain (Republican, Arizona) and Lindsey Graham (Republican, North Carolina).
On Wednesday, Sherry hosted a dinner at her residence for Lt-Gen Islam, CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell and top lawmakers on the House and Senate intelligence committees. There they discussed ‘mutual challenges’, according to one participant. On Thursday, CIA Director David Petraeus hosted a dinner for Gen Islam and Sherry.
“Both leaders reaffirmed their commitment to work together to counter the terrorist presence in the region that threatens both US and Pakistani national security,” a senior US official said of the Petraeus-Islam meeting.
That same day, Gen John Allen, the top US commander in Afghanistan, travelled to Islamabad to meet with Pakistan’s military chief.
In meetings with Petraeus and other officials, Lt-Gen Islam explained that US concessions on drones and the Taliban sites in Afghanistan would give Islamabad room to build domestic support for counterterrorism work with the US, according to officials briefed on the talks.
Under this proposal, the US would also work with Pakistan to control the Afghan side of the border, so militants driven out couldn’t escape into the Afghan border region, these officials said. The Pakistanis have named the planned offensive, in North Waziristan, Operation Tight Screw.
During this week’s meetings, Pakistani officials asked the US to target about a half-dozen Pakistani Taliban operatives, based in the Nuristan and Kunar provinces of Afghanistan, who Pakistan says have carried out dozens of attacks across the border, killing Pakistani soldiers, according to officials briefed on the meetings.
Last year, the US military began scaling back its operations in remote parts of Nuristan and Kunar provinces as it focused its efforts on southern Afghanistan and Afghanistan’s major population centres. That allowed insurgents to re-establish enclaves in the areas where the Afghan army was unable to establish control.
In meetings with US officials, the Pakistanis have also cast their plan as part of a counter-insurgency approach, which seeks to not just kill militants but build up the local economy and institutions to prevent militants from regaining a foothold, officials said.
That approach may hold appeal to Petraeus, who popularised that approach for US counterterrorism efforts when he rewrote the Army manual on counterinsurgency and used it to turn the tide in Iraq.
How much of this proposal would be enacted is an open question. US officials said they were open to improving data sharing for counterterrorism and conducting joint operations, but the drone programme remains a major source of contention, according to officials briefed on the meetings.