Hagel’s visit to Islamabad
By S. M. Hali
In the first visit by a US defence secretary in nearly four years, Chuck Hagel flew from Kabul to Islamabad and met Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and other top officials, including Pakistan Army’s new chief. The last Pentagon chief to visit Pakistan was Robert Gates in January 2010.
Hagel was accompanied by US Ambassador in Pakistan Richard Olson and US Acting Assistant Secretary of Defence Dr Peter Lavoy. The visit came in the backdrop of renewed tensions over the impediments to the Ground Lines of Communication (GLOC) for transporting NATO supplies via Torkham. GLOC via Chaman in Balochistan remains open for transportation of NATO logistics. The blockage comes unofficially at the hands of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, protesting the continued drone strikes in the province.
Pakistan is seen as crucial to peace in neighbouring Afghanistan as it was a key backer of the hardliner 1996-2001 Taliban regime in Kabul and is believed to have leverage with some of the movement’s leaders. “Secretary Hagel met with Prime Minister Nawaz on his visit to Washington earlier this year and looks forward to continuing candid and productive conversations,” Pentagon spokesperson Carl Woog told reporters on Sunday.
Reportedly, the visiting US Defence Secretary warned Pakistan over the blocked NATO supply route to Afghanistan as Islamabad raised the issue of American drone attacks on militants in remote areas of the terror-hit nation. Hagel cautioned the Pakistani Prime Minister that US lawmakers could withhold military assistance if Islamabad failed to ensure security for the key supply route. The prime minister indicated that Pakistan would address the issue.
During his meeting with the prime minister, Secretary Hagel reviewed shared concerns regarding the activities of terrorist groups, including the Haqqani network, on Pakistani territory. He also discussed the robust U.S. security assistance program designed to support the Pakistani government’s struggle against militants responsible for killing tens of thousands of Pakistanis. The secretary stressed that as ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) forces draw down over the course of 2014, U.S. and coalition partners remain resolved to not let militants destabilize the region.
The Pakistani government had previously blocked the routes for seven months following US airstrikes that accidentally killed two dozen soldiers on the Afghan border in November 2011.
Pakistan finally reopened the routes after the US apologized. The rift led the US to sever most aid to Pakistan for some time, but relations were restored in July 2012. Since then, the US has delivered over $1.15 billion in security assistance to Pakistan, including advanced communications equipment, roadside bomb jammers, night vision goggles and surveillance aircraft.
As for the drone strikes, there appears to be no let up. President Barack Obama has defended the drone strikes as an effective, lawful tool used with restraint to target suspected al Qaeda militants. But human rights groups and politicians in Pakistan say the missile attacks have killed innocent civilians and must stop.
In a post visit press release, Pentagon spokesperson Carl Woog informs that Secretary Hagel reviewed the mutually beneficial bilateral security relationship and reaffirmed the strong U.S. commitment to fostering peace and security in the region. The secretary also emphasized the U.S. desire for a strong, long-term partnership with Pakistan. He updated the prime minister, minister of defense, and the chief of the army staff on U.S. and NATO efforts to promote stability in Afghanistan.
Secretary Hagel raised the importance of keeping the ground supply routes out of Afghanistan open and thanked the prime minister for his government’s continued support. They discussed that while the GLOCs are open, noting goods are flowing through the Chaman gate, protests and security issues on the Pakistan side have impacted the ability of goods to move through the Torkham gate.
The secretary’s visit follows the 22nd Defense Consultative Group, held in Washington, D.C. on November 21-22. The defense consultative group is responsible for establishing the scope and character of bilateral security cooperation and is a part of the strategic dialogue, which was re-energized during Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Pakistan in August and reaffirmed by President Obama and Prime Minister Sharif on his visit to Washington in October.
Post visit analysis depicts the US Defence Secretary had a clear plan on how to deal with Pakistan. His warning on withholding financial assistance is an unambiguous reality check to Pakistan’s to get its act together or else the support would be frozen.
On the other hand, the Pakistani duo of Sharifs, the Prime Minister and the COAS did not appear to have a defined strategy to tackle the US Defence Secretary. The COAS, Raheel Sharif can be excused since he is still learning the ropes but the senior Sharif; the Prime Minister appeared to be awestruck like a deer caught in the headlights of a vehicle at night—completely befuddled.
This was a golden opportunity to read the riot act to the Pentagon head, responsible for the controversial drone attacks in Pakistan to put an end to them as the people of Pakistan are protesting violently to discontinue them. Apparently, living up to their reputation of barely muddling through, the Prime Minister and his aides comprising a part time Defence Minister and only a Foreign Affairs advisor in the absence of a proper Foreign Minister, missed a golden opportunity to convey the concern of the Pakistani people.
The baffled body language of the Pakistani Prime Minister told a sorry tale of Pakistan’s confusion in tackling security issues. This is contrary to the electoral promises of the Pakistan Muslim League (N). The people of Pakistan certainly did not vote them into power to remain clueless and tongue tied even when opportunity presented itself. The visit to meet President Obama at the Oval office had been equally squandered, when Mian Nawaz Sharif was reading from notes during the discussion and failed to put up a confident and informed representation of Pakistan’s apprehensions and distress over the US war strategy in Afghanistan and continued use of drones to target its prey in Pakistan but causing severe collateral damage and mayhem.