The top US military commander in Afghanistan has indirectly acknowledged that Pakistan’s military no longer discriminates between ‘good and bad’ Taliban. General John F Campbell has also said that Pakistan has undertaken aggressive operations against terrorists operating in its tribal border regions.
“Senior Pakistani military officers have repeatedly declared that they can no longer discriminate between ‘good and bad’ terrorists. They appear to be taking meaningful actions to back up their words,” Gen Campbell told the US Senate Armed Services Committee in his written testimony on Tuesday.
He was referring to the ongoing massive military operation, codenamed Zarb-e-Azb, against terrorists in North Waziristan Agency, the once stronghold of local Taliban and their foreign cohorts, and subsequent offensive in the strategic Tirah Valley of Khyber Agency.
“Pakistan’s military operations have displaced foreign fighters into eastern and northern Afghanistan,” Gen Campbell said. He added that Pakistan, like Afghanistan, has suffered greatly at the hands of terrorists and violent extremists. “The recent Pakistani Taliban (TTP) attack on a Pakistan Air Force base in Badhaber serves as a case in point,” he said.
He also acknowledged that Islamabad has facilitated efforts to broker peace in Afghanistan. “The role of Pakistan remains integral to stability in Afghanistan,” he added in his testimony.
Noting that considerable obstacles persist between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that these are likely to persist past 2016, Gen Campbell said: “The common threat of violent extremism can still serve as a catalyst to improve cooperation between the two countries.”
“For Afghanistan to reconcile with the Taliban, rapprochement with Pakistan will most likely have to occur first.”
He added that while Pakistan helped broker the first formal talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in July, these were derailed following a string of attacks in Kabul and emergence of a new Taliban leadership in wake of news that Mullah Omar had died. “Yet for every two steps forward in Afghan-Pakistan relations, another is seemingly taken backwards.”
Though the US commander acknowledged Pakistan’s counter-terror efforts, he said additional pressure must still be applied against the likes of the Haqqanis and the Taliban more broadly.
He said the Haqqani Network was the most virulent strain of the insurgency in Afghanistan that presented the biggest threat to coalition forces. “Haqqani fighters lead the insurgency in several eastern Afghan provinces, and they have demonstrated the intent and capability to launch and support high profile and complex attacks against the coalition.”
While the Afghan security forces and US troops have stepped up operations against the network, Gen Campbell said a joint effort with Pakistan was required. “It will take a concerted Afghan-Pakistan effort to reduce the effectiveness and capabilities of Haqqani Network.”
Rise of Da’ish
The US commander noted with alarm that Da’ish (Islamic State) had grown much faster in Afghanistan than they had anticipated, and that the group has now been classified as ‘operationally emergent’. But he believed the group was not capable of waging a concerted campaign.
Da’ish has not seen a wholesale convergance of other insurgent groups, or large influx of foreign fighters to join the movement, but many disaffected Afghan Taliban and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) members have rebranded themselves as Da’ish, Gen Campbell said.
He added that as per the UN, the group was present in varying degrees in all but nine provinces of Afghanistan, with most fighters concentrated in the eastern district of Nangarhar.
MSF attack a mistake
Having borne the brunt of criticism for bombing a known hospital in the battle for Kunduz, Gen Campbell admitted that the strike was a mistake and promised an inquiry.
“To be clear, the decision to provide aerial fires was a US decision made within the US chain of command,” Gen Campbell said in his testimony. “A hospital was mistakenly struck. We would never intentionally target a protected medical facility.”
Prior to his testimony, the US commander responded to calls for an independent inquiry by stating that he was “only authorised to order AR 15-6 (US military) and Casualty Assessment – a Nato inquiry.”
Gen Campbell declined to provide specifics about the recommendations he had made to the White House about force levels, but said they included an option for more troops than just a small embassy-based force. “Based on conditions on the ground, I do believe we have to provide our senior leadership [with] options different than the current plan we are going with,” he said.
Gen Campbell said the reasons for revamping the existing plan include the strengthening of Da’ish, ‘an increased al Qaeda presence,’ and the ‘upsurge’ in insurgent violence in some areas of Afghanistan. “As a result, I’ve put forward recommendations to adjust this new environment while addressing our core missions: train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces and conduct counter-terrorism operations to protect the homeland,” he told the committee.