Pakistan and the U.S. signed an accord governing supply routes for international forces in Afghanistan as the South Asian nation’s spy chief heads to Washington for talks this week aimed at easing irritants to ties.
The agreement signed yesterday will release more than $1 billion in withheld American economic assistance, Pakistan Television said, citing top U.S. embassy official in Islamabad Richard Hoagland. Lieutenant General Muhammad Zaheer-ul-Islam, the chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, is scheduled to hold discussions with U.S. counterparts, his first official visit since taking charge, according to a Pakistani army statement.
“Reopening supply routes is one obstacle which has been overcome,” said Ikram Sehgal, a Karachi-based analyst on military affairs. “Pakistan wants a clear-cut role in the Afghanistan end-game. The intelligence chief’s visit is probably the beginning of those negotiations,” said Sehgal, editor of Defence Journal, a monthly magazine.
Two larger obstacles to improved U.S.-Pakistani relations remain, however, three U.S. officials said yesterday. They are the Pakistani civilian government’s opposition to American drone strikes on terrorist targets in Pakistan and the Pakistani military’s reluctance to battle the Haqqani Network, based in the tribal areas along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.
The U.S. has continued the drone strikes despite public Pakistani protests that they also kill civilians and fuel the insurgency. Missiles fired from CIA-operated pilotless aircraft killed seven Uzbek fighters July 29, Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported, citing local residents. This was the fourth such strike since the reopening of supply routes on July 4, according to U.S.-based The Long War Journal, which tracks the conflict.
American officials in Afghanistan and Washington now consider the Haqqani Network, known by the acronym HQN, the greatest threat to American, allied, and Afghan forces and targets in Afghanistan from Pakistani safe havens, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because intelligence on the attacks is classified.
The latest State Department report on international terrorism, released yesterday, stops short of reporting what the U.S. officials said is longstanding covert support for the Haqqanis from active duty or retired ISI officers.
“Despite increased pressure on al-Qaeda leadership in the tribal areas of Pakistan, violent extremist groups continued to find refuge within that country,” the report said. The Pakistani military took action against violent extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Pakistan Taliban and suffered numerous casualties, according to the report. “However, Pakistani action was not as strong against other groups, including HQN,” it said.
A recent report on the Haqqani’s financing from the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, went further, saying:
“In addition to private donors, the network has continued to receive financial and logistical support from the Pakistan military, and continues to maintain close operational ties with the ISI. ‘If the Haqqani network were a sniper,’ said Afghan Police General Mohammed Daud Daud, just weeks before he was killed by a Taliban suicide bomber, ‘then the ISI would be its trigger finger.’”
“However,” the report continued, “Pakistan has resisted U.S. pressure to launch military operations against the Haqqanis, and then-CIA Director Leon Panetta has openly confronted his counterpart in the ISI over evidence that Pakistani authorities alerted Haqqani members ahead of a raid” on an improvised explosive device factory in North Waziristan.
Pakistan, concerned about the growing role in Afghanistan of its arch-rival, India, is seeking to safeguard a prominent political role in Afghan governance for the country’s Pashtun population after all U.S. combat troops leave in 2014, according to analysts including Imtiaz Gul, executive director of the independent Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad.
Pashtuns dominate areas bordering Pakistan and can help the country curb Pakistani Taliban groups that have taken shelter in Afghanistan’s border provinces, Gul said by phone.
Even the agreement to reopen the supply routes from Pakistan for North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces may be a mixed blessing, the U.S. officials said yesterday. The routes were closed in November after a U.S. military strike killed 24 Pakistani troops, and convoys resumed only this month following an apology from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The formal accord allows the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force to use two land routes through Pakistan to ship non-lethal supplies to Afghanistan until 2015. It permits the movement of weapons needed for training Afghan security forces.
It also will free as much as $1.2 billion in coalition support funds for Pakistan from fiscal year 2011 that the U.S. has withheld. The money is part of the U.S. Coalition Support Fund to reimburse Pakistan for its support of U.S. counter-insurgency operations, Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain John Kirby said on July 5.
While the Pakistani routes are shorter and less expensive than the NATO forces’ Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia, Russia, and the Caucasus, they also have been a source of revenue for the Taliban and other militant groups that have extracted payments in exchange for not attacking supply convoys, the U.S. officials said.
Though the partial improvement in relations offers the U.S. and Pakistan the chance to add momentum to talks after almost a year of strained ties, analysts warned against expectations of major progress.
“I think we’re back in the business-as-usual mode,” Gul said. “What’s happening now is that both countries are learning to tolerate each other despite the lingering disputes. This trend will continue until NATO troops leave Afghanistan.”