Brigadier Ihsan was commissioned in 1985. He held various command and staff appointments, including chief of staff of UN Peace keeping mission in Africa. He also commanded an Infantry battalion on LOC and a brigade in Waziristan. Now, he appears as a defence analyst in electronic and print media.
He talked exclusively to DNA regarding the regional security situation and Pak-US relations.
Question: How do you view the recent developments in US-Pakistan relations? After President Trump’s aggressive remarks and Pakistan’s defiant posture, things suddenly changed in Washington and Islamabad. What you make out of these confusing signals?
Brig Ihsan Shah: America is following the policy of stick and carrot. On one side they are making the CPEC Corridor controversial through toeing the line of India, casting aspersions on Pakistan’s intelligence agency that it has links with terrorist organisations and recently the US ambassador to UN Nikki Hailey that India must have an eye on Pakistan are some of the indicators.
On the other hand the visit of Rex Tillerson next week, appreciating the role played by Pak army in rescuing Joshua’s Canadian family and efforts putting in facilitating intra Afghans dialogue, is the other side of the picture. However, the message given by the Pakistani government — that we are not ready to fight others’ wars on our own soil and be a scapegoat for others failures — was very clear and rightly communicated. In addition opening windows for a regional approach through visiting Iran, China and Turkey and taking Russia in confidence played major role in shifting to the soft handling.
Q: Pakistan has long been demanding that Centcom to take action against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which have been falling on deaf ears. However, following the recovery of the North American couple, things changed suddenly and US drone attacks targeted around half a dozen high profile TTP terrorists. Do you think US inaction in the past was on purpose to destabilise Pakistan through the TTP, JuA?
IS: In a way, yes. In fact, the Americans are of the view that Pakistan is tacitly supporting Taliban inside Afghanistan who are fighting Americans along with NATO and the Afghan rag tag army. They have said it openly also and this point was central to the new Trump strategy for Afghanistan. This is one of the reasons they want an increased role for India on Afghan soil. The American wanted Pakistan to take action against the Haqqani network.
Pakistan has been taking action against all terrorists irrespective of colour, creed or any specific allegiance. However, there was a trust deficit. When Pakistan used to ask them for action against TTP/JUA elements the response used to be divisive. They normally referred to Quetta Shura and other elements inside tribal areas. Pakistan has always been asking for intelligence and targeted operations.
On the tactical level, the response of Afghan National Army has never been cooperative. But their side the border is thinly held and crossing over is no problem. Pakistan has been asking for an effective border mechanism however response from the other side has not been encouraging.
So far as far as the TTP and JuA concerned, Pakistan had been sharing confirmed reports with them that Umer Khalid Khurasani was hiding in Lal Pura District of Nangrahar inside Afghanistan. While Mulla Fazlullah is in Kunnar. They have links with RAW and all of them are destabilising Pakistan.
However, better late than never, after the rescue operation of the American-Canadian family by Pakistan and droning of Khalid Khurasani by the US, the situation is changing and clear signs are there in the domain of trust building.
Q: Pakistan’s cooperation in the rescue of Joshua-Coleman family was a pleasant surprise for the Trump administration. However, after an exchange of pleasantries, blame-game has started again as the CIA chief has accused that the couple was being kept inside Pakistan for the past five years. Previous reports however had claimed that the US drones were following the couple which was being transported from Afghanistan into Pakistani territory. What do you read out of these confusing signals?
IS: The 2600-km-long Pak-Afghan border is porous and thinly held from the other side. Many unfrequented routes are there which are known to these terrorists and they use them conveniently. The border is tricky and a clear line does not exist on ground. It is point scoring and blame gaming to shift the responsibility. Inside Pakistan, there are no ‘no go areas’ whereas on the other side, 40pc to 50 pc of Afghanistan is ungoverned or under the control of Taliban. Taliban’s governed areas are mostly adjacent to borders not only with Pakistan but even in the north and the east also including Baadghis and Badakhshan. May be the terrorists kept shifting the family, however, when the information at 4pm was shared with Pakistani forces, they intercepted the kidnappers coming from across the border at 7pm. Media spins is just the intelligence part of the game played by anti-Pakistan lobbies in the US.
Q: Pakistan Government has taking turns over the so-called ‘In-House Cleansing’. Successive statements by Khwaja Asif, Ahsan Iqbal and PM Abbasi reflect tensions growing again between the military and civilian leadership. Army chief’s concerns on economy and his quiet trips to Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE) have added fuel to the fire. How do you gauge the situation?
IS: The army has stated that decision making is the prerogative of the civil government, however, they have to play their role in formulation of the policy particularly on issues related to nuclear weapons, India, Afghanistan and the US. And rightly so, because they are deeply involved, shedding their blood and offering unparalleled sacrifices.
This voice is constitutional they being part of the security mechanism at higher level. Their suggestions are potent because of being well informed and present on ground. The statement of some ministers may be due to internal developments and peculiar happenings when the ruling family is in court. They are blown out of proportion.
The statement of the army chief on the economy was made at a forum for business community and it was based on facts. There is no denying the fact that political situation in the country is fragile but it has nothing to do with the Pakistan army. It is neither a party to it nor interested in taking sides. They are well aware that future of the country lies only in democracy.
Q: The recent huddle of Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) on Afghan peace process has proved to be a non-starter. US has attended the recent meeting reluctantly while the Afghan Taliban have refused to attend. Do you believe this Track-II process can deliver desired goods?
IS: These forums are good for understanding one another’s points of view. They provide an opportunity to discuss issues in real perspective. Since Taliban is a reality on ground controlling almost half of Afghanistan, the Afghan government has to think about giving them equal status for a breakthrough. Inclusion of China is also good for giving confidence to both the parties — Pakistan and Afghan government. Having said that, the solution will come only when both parties sit for a solution and not downsising each other.