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An important ally

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezJanuary 14, 2015

Secretary of State John Kerry has said the US will boost its security and defense cooperation with Pakistan in its fight against militants. DW speaks to analyst Omar Hamid on the nature of the US-Pakistani military bond.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) is greeted by Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif shortly after arriving in Islamabad, Pakistan January 12, 2015 (Photo: REUTERS/Rick Wilking)
Image: Reuters/R. Wilking

Speaking at a joint press conference with Pakistan's national security adviser Sartaj Aziz in Islamabad, Kerry praised the Pakistani military's ongoing operation against Islamist militants in the country's northwest. He also called on the South Asian nation to fight all militant groups that threaten Afghan, Indian and US interests.

"We've been very clear with the highest levels of the Government of Pakistan that Pakistan has to target all militant groups, the Haqqani Network and others, which target US coalition and Afghan forces and people in Pakistan and elsewhere," Kerry said on Tuesday, January 13.

Pakistan's military has vowed to avenge the December 16 Peshawar school massacre, in which some 150 people - mostly children - were killed. Since the Taliban assault, the army has intensified its ground and air strikes on Islamist militants in the restive Waziristan area. It is believed that some of the region's most feared militants use Waziristan as a launching pad for attacks within Pakistan as well as against NATO forces in neighboring Afghanistan. Hundreds of thousands have fled their homes in South and North Waziristan since the start of the operation.

Omar Hamid
Hamid: 'The latest actions seem to have restored the US' confidence in Pakistan'Image: IHS

Omar Hamid, Head of Asia Pacific Country Risk at IHS, says in a DW interview the Pakistani army's actions against the Haqqani network as well as its operations in Waziristan seem to have restored US confidence in Pakistan and led to an increasing level of cooperation between the two countries.

DW: Pakistan's problems with the Taliban insurgency are not new. Why did the US Secretary of State pick this time to pledge support for Pakistan in its offensive against extremist militants?

Omar Hamid: The past six months or so has seen increased efforts by Pakistan against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other militant groups. The Pakistani army has gone to great pains to show that their operations were even-handed against all Taliban-affiliated outfits, including groups such as the Haqqani network, which has been responsible for major attacks in Afghanistan, especially in Kabul. The country's military had been accused by the US and Afghan governments of protecting the Haqqani network in the past.

These latest actions seem to have restored confidence and led to an increasing level of cooperation between Washington and Islamabad. Therefore, while Secretary of State Kerry's visit may be occurring only now in the aftermath of the Peshawar school attack on December 16, in fact there has been growing intelligence cooperation between the two countries before this, as evidenced by US drone strikes targeting TTP leaders in eastern Afghanistan, which have been occurring since November 2014.

What kind of assistance is the US willing to offer Pakistan?

Pakistan is primarily interested in greater US military aid. The government also needs support for the resettlement of internally displaced persons from the current operation in North Waziristan. However, the Kerry Lugar Bill made the US government focus more on civilian institutions than just giving more aid money to the military.

The real issue here is that military and economic cooperation between Pakistan and the US has continued throughout this period, even despite some periods where the rhetoric on both sides had become more inflammatory.

Given this inflammatory rhetoric, why does the US believe it is important to assist Pakistan?

Pakistan remains a key US ally for two reasons: First, the army is the only force currently capable of flushing Islamist militant groups out of their sanctuaries in the tribal areas. Second, the US recognizes that they would need Pakistan to lean on the Afghan Taliban to initiate any kind of meaningful peace negotiations.

You mentioned the offensive in North Waziristan. The US has carried out a series of drone strikes in the tribal regions since Islamabad resumed its own offensive there. Pakistani officials, however, denounce the drone attacks as a violation of sovereignty. Are the two militaries working together in the offensive?

Despite their public denunciations, there is quite a bit of circumstantial evidence that supports the fact that these drone strikes are done in conjunction with, and at the behest of, the Pakistani military.

Almost certainly there has been an increase over the past few months in coordination between the two militaries, with US drone strikes targeting the TTP leadership on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghan border at the same time that Pakistani forces pushed into the North Waziristan.

US drones are also actively targeting Mullah Fazllullah, the head of the TTP, who is thought to be in Kunar, Afghanistan, and was recently added to Washington's official terrorism list. At least two drone strikes have attempted to kill him since November 2014.

Nevertheless, some analysts believe Pakistan's security services see the Haqqanis as an "asset" and maintain close links with them. What is your view on this?

Whatever the past relationship may have been, during the current operation the Pakistani army has made it a point to target the Haqqani network, with the result that the Haqqanis' offensive capabilities seem to have been greatly reduced in recent times.

In his visit to Washington in November 2014, Pakistan's army chief Raheel Sharif received public praise from both the Pentagon leadership and other members of the US establishment for having not spared the Haqqani network during the present operations.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (2nd R) shake hands as they are flanked by US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker (L) and Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj (R) at the Prime Minister's residence in New Delhi August 1, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)
Hamid: 'Washington's own priorities would take precedence over what New Delhi would consider urgent'Image: Reuters

How could Kerry's pledge of support for Pakistan help ease tensions with neighboring India?

Pakistan has always desired direct US intervention to resolve the Kashmir dispute with India. While such direct support is unlikely, nonetheless, with Pakistani-US relations enjoying a high point, the Pakistani establishment will be content that in light of supportive comments from the US, India will be restrained from taking any kind of unilateral action that would raise war risks between the two countries.

What leverage does Washington have on Islamabad to help decrease the violence along the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan?

The US has the considerable leverage in terms of its economic support for Pakistan, which it could potentially use to decrease LoC violence, but it also understands that any threats about the reduction of aid and/or economic support would also undermine Pakistani support for anti-terror operations, which is the US' primary interest in engaging with the country. Therefore, its own priorities would take precedence over what India would consider urgent.

Omar Hamid is Head of Asia Pacific Country Risk at IHS.