Photo: iStock / Getty
Central Asia is a key crossroads for China's BRI, but resentment is rising against Chinese investment. Photo: iStock / Getty

Most certainly, it stretches credulity that Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment were in the dark about the US-Canadian couple held hostage (apparently by Islamist militants) for five long years before being freed on October 11 by the Pakistani military, ostensibly on a tip-off by the US intelligence.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo has, perhaps inadvertently, put a big hole through the Pakistani version of events by disclosing that the hostages were kept all along in Pakistan rather than Afghanistan.

At the very least, there is much more to the rescue act by the Pakistani military than meets the eye. Political machinations are afoot in the episode, which is obvious from the fact that the US President Donald Trump himself lauded the Pakistani military.

However, the Americans, typically, are not pressing the point or asking uncomfortable questions and instead prefer to move on. That is also the message from delightful remarks made at a conference on counter-terrorism cooperation with Pakistan held at the US Institute of Peace in Washington at the weekend, where the participants included veteran American war horses and South Asia hands such as Robin Raphel.

Coming out of the woodwork after a long absence from center stage, Ambassador Raphel, unsurprisingly, lost no time in getting straight to the point: “What’s the appropriate role of India in Afghanistan?” Former US ambassador to Kabul Zalmay Khalilzad put things in perspective by explaining candidly that Washington wants India to counter China’s growing influence but faces the reality that US-Indian bonhomie “will have implications for our relationship with Pakistan.”

All indications are that the Trump administration has once again begun dealing directly with the “powers that be” in Pakistan – the military. The Chairman of Pakistan’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, Gen Zubair Mahmood Hayat, shuttled over to Washington on Track 1.5 diplomacy on Monday. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is traveling to Islamabad on Tuesday and Defence Secretary James Mattis is due to visit Pakistan in December.

A still image from a video posted by the Taliban on social media on December 19, 2016 shows American Caitlan Coleman (left), her Canadian husband Joshua Boyle, and two sons. The couple were kidnapped in October 2012 then released this month. Their three children were born in captivity. Photo via Reuters

And while all this is going on, the CIA has reportedly drawn up a project to hunt down the Taliban’s commanders – men trained and equipped by Pakistan’s Inter-services Intelligence – through covert operations inside Afghanistan. The New York Times reported on Sunday:

The CIA is expanding its covert operations in Afghanistan, sending small teams of highly experienced officers and contractors alongside Afghan forces to hunt and kill Taliban militants across the country… The CIA has traditionally been resistant to an open-ended campaign against the Taliban, the primary militant group in Afghanistan, believing it was a waste of the agency’s time and money and would put officers at greater risk as they embark more frequently on missions.

What prompted the CIA to change course and assume an expanded and risky role in Afghanistan we do not know. But the high probability is that the new strategy has the blessing of the Pakistani military and ISI.

In a nutshell, therefore, while Tillerson and Mattis tango with the folks in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, CIA operatives are preparing to systematically eliminate the Taliban’s commanders inside Afghanistan. The hope is that, finally, this will bring any reconcilable insurgents to the negotiating table.

Things are indeed becoming curioser and curioser under Trump. The killing of Umar Khalid Khorasani, chief of the Pakistan Taliban group Jamaatul Ahrar, in a US drone strike last week appears to fit with a nascent US-Pak effort to crack down on remaining recalcitrant militants.

While Tillerson and Mattis tango with the folks in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, CIA operatives are preparing to systematically eliminate the Taliban’s commanders inside Afghanistan

Clearly, the US has appeased Pakistan by decapitating Khorasani, which was a longstanding demand of the Pakistani military. Will there be a Pakistani quid pro quo now – say, the decimation of the Haqqani Network from the chessboard? From this point, anything is possible, since China also will be giving a helping hand to the Trump administration by leveraging its influence in Islamabad.

Against this ‘kinetic’ backdrop, the unscheduled daylong “working visit” to Delhi by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Tuesday assumes great significance. To be sure, Pakistan will expect the US to guarantee that Afghan soil is no longer used to stage cross-border terrorist attacks on targets inside Pakistan. Ghani and Afghan intelligence have to adjust quickly to the new reality.

An Indian Foreign Ministry press release says that Ghani will “review the entire gamut of multifaceted bilateral strategic partnership” with the Indian leadership and “hold consultations and coordinate on furthering the shared objective of promoting peace, security, stability and prosperity in Afghanistan and efforts to combat the menace of terrorism; and discuss regional and global issues of mutual interest.”

Tillerson will arrive in Delhi on Tuesday evening straight after the daylong talks in Islamabad. He is sure to transmit to the Indians a litany of demands from the Pakistani military, which has all along alleged that Indian intelligence is operating out of Afghanistan to destabilize Pakistan.

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