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Are US-Pakistan Relations Back on Track?

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The Pulse

Are US-Pakistan Relations Back on Track?

A U.S. drone strike and bounty on Pakistani Taliban leaders signal renewed cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan.

Are US-Pakistan Relations Back on Track?
Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt

Two recent developments signify a breakthrough in renewed cooperation between Pakistan and the United States after exchanges of harsh statements over the past few months. First, on March 7 a drone strike in Afghanistan’s eastern Kunar province killed 21 suspected militants. Shortly afterward, the U.S. Department of Justice placed a bounty on three Pakistani Taliban leaders.

Missiles fired by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are anathema for Pakistani hardliners as well as the country’s security establishment and sometimes generate public condemnations even though the drones target individuals who have claimed responsibility for some of the worst terrorist attacks in the country in recent years.

However, the situation was different on March 7. Pakistani intelligence officials, who are keeping a watchful eye on the various militant networks operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, willingly shared details about the newest drone strike, which hit a sanctuary reportedly sheltering militants of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Pakistani intelligence officials shared with media the names of 21 suspected militants killed in the strike. The majority are from Swat, the tourist spot in Pakistan’s northwest once overtaken by the Pakistani Taliban. Among them, the most prominent was Abdullah, son of the Taliban chief Mullah Fazlullah, who hails from the Mam Dheri area of Swat in Pakistan’s northwest.

The village is also the birth place of the Mullah Fazlullah-led Taliban movement in Swat, which later served as the headquarters of his armed brigades until May 2009. A massive Pakistani military operation in that month routed the group from Swat, while also displacing hundreds of thousands of locals. Many of Fazlullah’s armed supporters and commanders were either killed or arrested. But the Mullah himself miraculously escaped and later crossed the border into Afghanistan.

Since 2009, Fazlullah has been hiding across the border and his TTP militants carry out attacks against civilians and security officials inside Pakistan from time to time. Among other terrorist attacks, the Mullah Fazlullah-led TTP claimed responsibility for the December 2014 attack on a military-run school that killed nearly 150 people, most of whom were schoolchildren, and the killing of Major-General Sanaullah Niazi in September 2013. Fazlullah has gained in both power and popularity since becoming chief of the TTP following the killing of its dreaded chief, Hakimullah Mehsud, in a drone strike in November 2013.

Over the years, Pakistani officials have often accused the Afghan government of harboring TTP militants on its side of the border, just as Afghan officials accuse the Pakistanis of providing sanctuaries to the Taliban and the Haqqani Network.

Action against Mullah Fazlullah and his TTP has been one of the key demands from Pakistan during negotiations with Afghan and U.S. officials. Now, in addition to the recent drone strike, the U.S. Justice Department has offered a reward of $5 million for ” information leading to the identification or location” of Fazlullah, and $3 million rewards for information on two other key TTP figures.

After Fazlullah, the second militant leader included in the U.S. Justice Department list is Abdul Wali, alias Omar Khalid Khorasani.

Hailing from the Mohmand tribal district, Khorasani was once commander of the TTP for Mohmand, one of the seven tribal districts of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Khorasani later parted ways with the TTP and declared his own group in the name of Jamat ul Ahrar (JuA).

In February 2014, Khorasani’s JuA claimed responsibility for killing 23 personnel of the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC), who had been kidnapped in June 2010. It was this killing that forced Pakistan’s previous army chief, General Raheel Sharif, into a hard-hitting statement that the army “would not spare those who played football with the heads of Pakistani soldiers” at a dinner at Pakistan’s embassy in Washington in November 2014.

In March 2016, Khorasani’s JuA claimed a suicide attack in a park in Pakistan’s eastern city of Lahore that killed 72 people. The majority of the victims were Christians, who had gathered at the park to celebrate Easter.

The third militant leader included in the bounty list is a former truck driver from Pakistan’s Khyber tribal district. Hailing from Sipah subtribe of the Afridi tribe in Bara region of Khyber Agency, Mangal Bagh, is not and has never been part of the TTP. Rather, he heads his own militant faction in the name of Lashkar-e-Islam, or the army of Islam.

He launched his vice and virtue activities in the Bara region of Khyber in 2005-2006, asking men to grow beards and cover their heads, women not to reveal their faces in public outside their houses, and inviting people to pray five times a day in mosques.

Continued negligence by the Pakistani authorities encouraged Mangal Bagh to challenge the state by punishing people in public and threatening others allegedly engaged in un-Islamic activities, even in the nearby city of Peshawar.

Bagh fled the area when Pakistani security forces launched a massive operation against him in 2008-2009. Since then, he has been hiding in the Nazian district of Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarha province, located just across the border from Pakistan’s Khyber tribal district.

All the three leaders – Fazlullah, Wali aka Khorasani, and Bagh – are wanted by the Pakistani government, with Fazlullah on top of the list. The March 7 drone strike in the mountainous Afghan territory and the new bounties, seen from this perspective, are believed to be the first step in anti-Taliban cooperation among Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States.

Days before the Kunar drone attack, a U.S. official was quoted by the Pakistani newspaper Dawn as saying that Pakistan and the Taliban have legitimate grievances. The statement was attributed to Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Alice Wells, who had recently paid visits to Islamabad and held talks with Pakistan.

Just before that statement, the senior director for South and Central Asia at the White House National Security Council, Lisa Curtis, was in Islamabad where she held meetings with top governmental officials. Her visit is now being followed by Pakistani Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua’s trip to Washington.

The attack against Fazlullah-led militants in Afghanistan’s Kunar province came the same day as Janjua’s landing in Washington, DC.

Retired Lt. General Talat Masood, a defense analyst in Islamabad, believes that after exchange of harsh statements earlier this year, the leadership on either side seems to realize the need for cooperation instead of confrontation.

In a telephone interview, he told me that continued tension among the erstwhile allies will benefit the elements who are out to disrupt peace both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He believes the Kunar drone strike could be the first step in this renewing cooperation among the anti-terror war allies – Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States.

However, Shamim Shahid, a Peshawar-based analyst and deputy editor of the Urdu language newspaper Khabrain, told me in an interview that he does not see any reason to believe that the March 7 drone strike could be part of renewed cooperation between the United States and Pakistan.

“This is not the first time that the United States targeted the TTP militants. Almost all the top TTP leadership was targeted in the U.S. drone strikes and not a single leader was killed by the Pakistani security forces,” Shahid said.

In contrast, Shahid added, anyone who stood up and opposed the TTP in Pakistan was killed, be that civilians or police officers, while those who oppose the United States (including militants and their supporters) are enjoying full freedom.

Highly divergent interests have turned relations between the United States and Pakistan, two allies in the war on terror, messy to the extent of unpredictability. However, if recent signals are to be believed, there seem to be renewed efforts to save the relationship rather than let it break down, which no one believes is an option.

Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFE/RL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.