17 January 2018

Pakistan pits CENTCOM commander against Trump administration

In a conversation with Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, the Pakistani military claimed CENTCOM commander General Joseph Votel said the idea that the Taliban uses Pakistan as a safe haven is “undermining … Pakistan’s contributions in war against terrorism” in Washington. Pakistan’s characterization of the conversation would seemingly pit General Votel directly against the Trump administration, which has decided to take a hard line against Pakistan for its ongoing support of jihadists in Afghanistan. CENTCOM declined to comment to FDD’s Long War Journal on Pakistan’s view of Votel’s conversation but said it remains “in continuous communication with the Pakistan military.”

The Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) division published its version of the discussion between Generals Votel and Bajwa on Jan. 12 in a statement entitled “Pak-US security cooperation post the President Trump tweet.”

The ISPR was referring to Trump’s Jan. 1 tweet where he excoriated Pakistan for receiving $33 billion in US aid over the past 16 years but then continued to shelter and support the Taliban. The US government subsequently cut off all funding to the Security Assistance and Coalition Support Fund, which reimbursed Pakistan for expenses incurred while fighting terrorist groups.

The trouble for the US is that Pakistan only fights terrorist groups of convenience. The Pakistani military normally only targets groups that threaten Pakistan, such as the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, but continues to harbor and support others such as the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba – or the so-called “good Taliban.”

According to the ISPR, Votel told Bajwa that the United States “values Pakistan’s role towards war on terror” and that he expected the “on-going turbulence,” or the war of words between the US and Pakistan, and the suspension of aid “a temporary phase.”

Votel then said, according to the ISPR, that the US military “is not contemplating any unilateral action inside Pakistan,” presumably special operations raids or airstrikes against Taliban leaders or support nodes, “but is seeking cooperation to tackle Afghan nationals who, in US view, use Pakistan’s soil against Afghanistan.”

In other words, the ISPR said that Votel told Bajwa that the US would not attack the Taliban but instead is looking for Pakistani cooperation to stop Taliban operations on Pakistani soil.

The ISPR then made a statement that, if accurately quoted by the ISPR, would pit General Votel directly against the Trump administration, which has decided to take a hard line against Pakistan for its ongoing support of jihadists in Afghanistan.

“This view [that Pakistan is supporting the Afghan Taliban], he [General Votel] felt, was undermining in Washington, Pakistan’s contributions in war against terrorism,” the ISPR reported.

Or, put another way, General Votel allegedly said that President Trump’s comments about Pakistan’s support to the Afghan Taliban is “undermining … Pakistan’s contributions in war against terrorism.”

FDD’s Long War Journal contacted CENTCOM for comment on the ISPR statement and the characterization of Votel’s conversation with Bajwa. CENTCOM declined to comment on the ISPR statement.

However, CENTCOM spokesman Colonel John Thomas issued the following statement:

U.S. Central Command is in continuous communication with the Pakistan military, including recurring conversations between General Votel and Pakistan Chief of Army Staff Bajwa. We value mutual understanding of interests and concerns that we need to consider that might lead to a positive path forward.

While CENTCOM chose to avoid sparking controversy over the ISPR’s statement in order to keep the lines of communication open with the Pakistani military, it may have undermined General Votel’s standing with the Trump administration.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.

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