The United States weighed in on the Pakistan Army through high-level military channels to release Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman within hours of his capture on February 27, making it clear to Rawalpindi that it was the only way to de-escalate matters.
ET has reliably gathered that at the instance of Washington, US Centcom Commander Gen. Joseph Votel spoke to Pakistan Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa “encouraging him” to release Wing Commander Abhinandan at the earliest.
Centcom Commander is the principal interface for the Pakistan Army Chief with the US. Centcom is responsible for operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan and is involved in facilitating the diplomatic effort to engage the Taliban.
The communication loop on the US end, sources said, was largely between Gen Votel and National Security Advisor John Bolton, who was in regular touch with his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval. He, however, let Gen Votel handle the channel with the Pakistan Army.
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The US message was reinforced by the United Kingdom, which has “deep influence” with the Pakistan Army. The US interlocutors, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Joseph Dunford , who also spoke to his Pakistan counterpart Gen Zubair Mahmood Hayat, made it clear that Washington saw the Pakistan action after India’s counter-terrorism strike on Balakot as escalatory.
Gen Votel’s message opened several other channels of communication through which a constant message was put out that Pakistan must release Wing Commander Abhinandan without delay, said sources.
However, sources said, there was considerable pressure within the Pakistan system not to “give in” as a captured Indian pilot was a “prize catch” in a warlike situation. US military interlocutors, on the other hand, told Pakistan Army that it would not endorse the use of Wing Commander Abhinandan as a “bargaining chip”.
India, meanwhile, had moved up its forces and asked Washington to ensure that Wing Commander Abhinandan was treated with dignity. At some point in constant conversation, the Pakistan Army agreed in consultation with its government. And while Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s announcement was welcome, there was fair amount of tension on the day Wing Commander Abhinandan was to walk across the Wagah border.
Suddenly, sources said, there was a message from some quarters in Pakistan that certain “legal obstacles” had to be cleared.
Those in the know of details told ET that the day was spent again in pushing Pakistani officials at all levels to not delay the release at the last moment. It was only after hours of repeated conversations between American and Pakistani officials that the release was finally facilitated, added sources.