Suddenly, there is a change of priorities in Pakistan. Or is the shift tactical? In the last two weeks, there have been stunning admissions of guilt in the highest echelons of power in a country dominated by the military for a better part of their seven-decade existence.
On Thursday, for the first time Pakistan’s all powerful military admitted that its spy service, Inter Services Intelligence or the dreaded ISI, had links with militants, adding, in the same breath however, that it did not mean that ISI supported terrorist organisations. Answering US claims about links between the ISI and terror groups, Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, director general of ISI, was pretty upfront. “There is a difference between support and having links. Name any intelligence agency, which does not have links. Links can be positive and the US defence secretary James Mattis did not say there was support…”
Mattis had said earlier this week that the US would try “one more time” to work with Pakistan in Afghanistan before President Donald Trump would turn to options to address Islamabad’s alleged support for militants.
Mattis was not the only top American official who raised this point. Earlier, Gen Joseph Dunford, chairman of Joint Chief of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he believed that the ISI directorate had ties to militant groups. In fact, Dunford was categorical: “It is clear to me that the ISI has connections to terrorist groups.”
Most interestingly, the military spokesperson contradicted the Pakistan foreign office, which rejected Dunford’s claims that the ISI has ties with militant groups and terrorists safe havens in Pakistan.
It said – on the same day as the ISI briefing – that the US is trying to blame Pakistan for its failures in Afghanistan. “The US government and army cannot make Pakistan a scapegoat for its failures in Afghanistan,” the Pakistan foreign office spokesperson noted.
This rare divergence of opinion between the country’s foreign office and the military was preceded by another candid admission earlier in the week in the US. Pakistan foreign minister Khwaja Mohammed Asif, on a visit to the US, stirred a hornets’ nest both in his country and the US when he said that Pakistan not just erred in being an American proxy, but it was also a collective sin and mistake.
It came with a stunning caveat though. “Scapegoating Pakistan for all the Afghan ills is neither fair nor accurate.’ Refusing to accept the entire blame for the rise of terrorism, Asif said at the Asia Society Forum in New York, with a sense of atonement: “It was a proxy war and we were used and discarded.”
Importantly for India, it underlined yet again the glaring divergence of opinion between Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership on how best to deal with India. Asif said that former prime minister Nawaz Sharif had to pay the political price for his peace efforts with India.
For Pakistan’s substantial peacenik population, it was a shot in the arm. They have always maintained that Pakistan’s eternally antagonistic relations with India have been detrimental to that country’s interests in its endeavour to grow economically in any substantial way.
In more glaring admissions, foreign minister Asif termed the Haqqani network and Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s Hafiz Saeed as liabilities for Pakistan. He went so far as to ‘request’ Washington to get rid of the two within a time frame.
Asif displayed raw guts - sitting as he was in Washington – when he termed the terrorists as ‘darlings’ of the White House. “Don’t blame us for the Haqqanis (the Haqqani network) and don’t blame us for Hafiz Saeeds. These were the people who were your darlings just 20 to 30 years ago. They were being wined and dined in the White House and now you say go to hell Pakistanis because you are nurturing these people.”
Interestingly, Asif has drawn the support of a ginger group within Pakistan – small but influential, including some former army officers – who have warmed up to the minister’s unequivocal self- critique of Islamabad partnering Washington in the proxy war against erstwhile USSR in Afghanistan.
Asif also raked up the historic interview of Zbigniew Brezezinsky, former National Security Adviser (NSA) to President Jimmy Carter, conducted by the French weekly `Le Nouvel Observateur’ in October 1998. The NSA admitted that “CIA aid to the Mujahideen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise. Indeed it was on July 3, 1979, that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the President in which I explained to him that in my opinion, this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.” And that is exactly the way it panned out.
Defending the secret operation of pushing in Islamic militants with the support of then Pakistan’s military dictator President Zia-ul Haq, now the most hated of all military dictators in that country, Brezezinsky said “it had the effect of drawing Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it...” Not surprisingly, some members of the National Assembly in Pakistan have demanded action against Asif for taking a position contrary to national policy dealing with terrorism.