The top civil and military leadership delivered a clear message to senior US officials earlier yesterday that Pakistan would no longer tolerate drone strikes on its soil, warning that such attacks in future would jeopardise bilateral cooperation between the two countries.
The stern message was conveyed by Prime Minister’s Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz and army chief General Raheel Sharif to US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Olson and Senior Adviser and Director for South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council Dr Peter Lavoy.
Olson and Lavoy held separate meetings with Aziz at the Foreign Office and with Gen Raheel at the GHQ as part of a damage control exercise in the wake of recent developments, particularly the May 21 US drone strike in Balochistan’s Naushki district that killed Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansoor.
Discussions at the Foreign Office and the GHQ were said to be ‘candid and tense’ as both sides conveyed each other’s concerns.
Officials familiar with the discussions said Pakistan not only raised the issue of the Naushki drone strike but also demanded that US forces target the safe heavens of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its chief Mullah Fazlullah inside Afghanistan.
The involvement of Indian and Afghan spy agencies in stoking trouble in Pakistan also came up for discussions.
America’s top commander in Afghanistan General John Nicholson also joined Olson and Levoy for the GHQ meeting where the two sides discussed the negative fallout of the Naushki drone strike and regional issues.
An unusual detailed press release issued by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said the army chief expressed his serious concerns over the drone attack as violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.
Gen Raheel highlighted how it had impacted the mutual trust and respect and was counterproductive to consolidating the gains of Operation Zarb-e-Azb. “All efforts for durable peace in the region have to be synergised with a shared commitment and responsibility in order to make them successful,” he said.
While Pakistan conveyed its concerns, the US side came up with its own reservations over what it said ‘safe havens’ of the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network.
According to the US side, as long as ‘terrorist sanctuaries’ were not dismantled inside Pakistan, they could not give an assurance that there would be no more drone strikes, diplomatic sources said.
However, Pakistan contested the US claim as both Aziz and Gen Raheel separately informed the American officials that Pakistan had targeted all militant groups without any discrimination.
The army chief said Operation Zarb-e-Azb was launched against terrorists of all hues and sanctuaries of terrorists had been dismantled without discrimination, according to the ISPR.
He called upon all stakeholders to understand Pakistan’s challenges with regard to the porous border, inter-tribal linkages and decades-old presence of over three million refugees. “Blaming Pakistan for instability in Afghanistan is unfortunate,” he regretted.
Raising the demand of targeting TTP and Mullah Fazlullah in their bases in Afghanistan, Gen Raheel reiterated Pakistan’s resolve not to allow hostile intelligence agencies’ efforts, especially India’s Research and Analysis Wing and Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security, for fomenting terrorism.
This is the first time that Pakistan has officially accused the Afghan intelligence agency of creating instability in what appears to be the latest sign of ties souring between Islamabad and Kabul.
The army chief reaffirmed the need for continuing harmonised efforts against terrorists and effective border management as ways to regional peace and stability. Pakistan is committed to working for a long-term peace process for Afghanistan under the framework of Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG).
A separate statement issued by the Foreign Office said Aziz and Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry held candid discussions on bilateral relations, regional security situation and the Afghan peace process in the wake of the 21st May drone strike in Balochistan with the US officials.
Aziz conveyed a strong message to the United States that the 21st May drone strike was not only a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and breach of the principles of the UN Charter, but has also vitiated bilateral ties.
“It was emphasised that any future drone strike in Pakistan will be detrimental to our common desire to strengthen relations,” the statement said.
Aziz expressed his concern that the drone strike had seriously undermined the ongoing efforts for Afghan peace and reconciliation process at a time when Pakistan, along with other QCG countries, was engaged in serious efforts to revive peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
The foreign secretary recalled that in QCG’s fifth meeting on May 18, it was decided that peace negotiations remained the only option for a political settlement. He emphasised that this would require collective efforts on the part of all QCG members to promote lasting peace in Afghanistan.
In response to US concerns about alleged safe havens of the Afghan Taliban, it was emphasised that Pakistan was already pursuing its objective of eliminating all militants and terrorists from its soil in accordance with the National Action Plan.
At the same time, Pakistan would have to safeguard its own security through better border management and early repatriation of Afghan refugees. Pakistan also expects action by Afghan forces against TTP operatives in Afghanistan. These steps would also help promote better relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan and reduce mistrust.