It was widely reported recently that the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo, said in rather stark terms that the US would ‘do everything we can’ to destroy terrorist havens in Pakistan if Islamabad did not eliminate those from its territory. The unusually forthright terminology used by Pompeo was contrasted by the US Defence Secretary James Mattis’s more muted approach to the issue. While the mixed signals being sent by the current administration in Washington to Pakistan may be a deliberate strategy to keep Islamabad off balance, it cannot be denied that some militant and terrorist groups are based in Pakistan. This only lends credence to the country’s detractors, compromises its security and detracts from the government’s attempts to enhance the country’s – and, by extension, its peoples’ – economic situation.
CIA Director Pompeo’s warning to Pakistan appears to have been timed to coincide with Secretary Mattis’s visit to Pakistan on 4 December. His visit to Islamabad could explain Mattis’s seemingly conciliatory and hopeful approach to the issue of terrorist safe havens in Pakistan. Speaking to the accompanying journalists aboard his aircraft en route from Jordan to Kuwait about his forthcoming meeting with Pakistani military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and government leaders, Mattis stated that he had no plans to ‘prod’ Pakistan on any issues. He planned, he said, to take an approach that would enable both he and the Pakistani Government to find ‘common ground’. As he put it:
The first thing I’m going to do is do some listening, like I always do. My goal is to find common ground. We know we have some common ground. They have lost hundreds, thousands of their troops killed and wounded by terrorists. They have lost hundreds, thousands of their innocent people murdered and wounded by terrorists, so we know that there is common ground. There is common ground between Afghanistan and Pakistan, because there are terrorist groups that try to move back and forth, that do move back and forth in order to live in one and attack in the other, that sort of thing. So we know there’s common ground; it’s how much more common ground can we find by listening to one another without being combative with one another, listening to others perspective, but at the same time, as General Bajwa has said, he wants no havens for terrorists anywhere, so we will work together and we’ll find that common ground, if we have the will to. And then we’ll work on how we address the problems where we can work together.
The non-combative approach was distinct from Pompeo’s warning to Pakistan. Speaking at the Reagan National Defence Forum two days before Mattis’s visit to Islamabad, Pompeo said that the US would do everything it could to destroy terrorist havens in Pakistan. This could be taken to mean that the US would act to the full extent that international law permits to work with Pakistan to eradicate terrorist camps in the country. As a corollary, it could also imply that the US would not unilaterally take any action that involved military strikes. When taken together with the tacit implication by a senior US Army officer that Pakistan uses militant groups as proxies to carry out strikes in neighbouring countries, any such hope appears remote; in that light, Pompeo’s warning takes on a distinctly different hue.
Pakistan reacted sharply to Pompeo’s warning, none more so than General Bajwa, who told the US Ambassador, ‘We are not looking for any material or financial assistance from USA, but trust, understanding and acknowledgement of our contributions’. The “financial assistance” was a direct reference to President Trump’s public complaint that the US has given Pakistan “billions and billions” of dollars without seeing much help in return. Rather, as he said, Pakistan continued to shelter the terrorists US troops in Afghanistan were fighting. Referring to the war in Afghanistan, Bajwa noted that peace in Afghanistan was as important to Pakistan as it was to any other country and said, ‘We have done a lot towards that end and shall keep on doing our best, not to appease anyone, but in line with our national interest and national policy.’
Pakistan does not deny that it effectively created the Taliban. Following the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, it provided Afghans fleeing the violence with sanctuary; it also, however, allowed Afghan fighters to establish bases near refugee camps. Witnessing the effect of this asymmetrical force in bringing about a Soviet retreat in 1989, Pakistan continued to support the rebels, known as the Taliban and by sundry other group names, directing their efforts (and those of their successors) against Afghanistan and India. Pakistan does not deny that it created the Taliban, but protests that it did so only to stop the civil war in Afghanistan.
One of the first major inklings for Pakistan that its creation would turn on it was when a group of fighters attacked a school attended by the children of Pakistani Army staff in 2014. Insurgents continue to attack Pakistani economic interests, including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is critical to Pakistan’s economic development. It is inevitable that further attacks on that prime target will follow. Added to that worry, China has stopped funding CPEC road projects in Pakistan because of allegations of corruption. Pakistan, which had grown close to China after falling out of favour with the US, is now so deeply dependent on Beijing that it must comply with virtually every demand and condition that China lays down. It is growing closer to being in a no-win situation.
The threat implicit in Pompeo’s remarks notwithstanding, the greater danger to Pakistan stems from the fact that its close ties to militant groups can only impede its economic progress. That impediment can only have a negative impact upon the citizens of Pakistan and keep them from living their lives in peace and economic comfort. It is incumbent upon the Pakistani Government and military, therefore, to put aside that relationship, difficult as that may be, in order to better focus on the needs of the people who they serve.