Pakistani and Russian military commandos have launched joint counterterrorism drills in the mountains and forests of Russia’s North Caucasus republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia. The two-week-long exercise dubbed as “Friendship 2017” involves more than 200 mostly special forces from both countries who will conduct joint “hostage rescue” and “cordon-and-search” operations, according to the Pakistani military. “The joint exercise will enhance and further strengthen military ties between the countries and share Pakistan army’s experience in war against terrorism,” it added. Meanwhile, a nearly three-week-long joint air force exercises China is hosting with Pakistan are due to conclude this week. A spokesman for the Chinese air force described them as “routine” exercises.
Pakistan’s deepening political, economic and defense ties with traditional ally China and its emerging new alliance with Russia come amid Islamabad’s increasingly uneasy and strained relations with the United States. The tensions stem from persistent U.S. allegations that Pakistan is not doing enough to prevent terrorist groups on its soil from undertaking deadly attacks against American troops in Afghanistan or from undermining peace-building efforts in the war-ravaged country. Bilateral ties have plunged to new lows following U.S. President Donald Trump’s policy speech last month that accused Islamabad of not ending terrorist safe havens on its soil. U.S. officials have also threatened, among other punitive measures, to degrade Pakistan’s status of a major non-NATO ally.
Islamabad promptly rejected the charges, saying no sanctuaries exist on Pakistani soil because of sustained security operations. It asserted Washington was “scapegoating” Pakistan because of its own “failures” in ending the Afghan war. Pakistan hosted the inaugural round of the counterterrorism drills with Russia late last year, their first-ever joint military exercise. The drills stem from a defense cooperation agreement the two countries signed in 2014, lifting a long-running Russian embargo on arms sales to Pakistan. The deal paved the way for the sale of Mi-35 combat helicopters to Islamabad, despite objections by India, Moscow’s longtime ally and Pakistan’s archenemy.
The October 4 conclusion of the drills is expected to coincide with an official visit to Russia by Pakistan army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Foreign Ministry spokesman Nafees Zakaria said the visit is a regular high-level exchange between the two sides that “has set the stage for translating political goodwill into a substantial partnership, in particular, in the field of defense.”