Pakistan shudders at the idea of US cutting aid, sanctions

Trump has warned Islamabad that if it doesn’t crack down on the US’s Afghan adversaries: US funding to Pak can be yanked, along with sanctions, and worse yet, attacks on Taliban leaders in Pakistani territory.

WrittenBy:Umer Farooq
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US President Donald Trump’s speech in which he lambasted Pakistan for harbouring the same terrorists US forces were fighting in Afghanistan, has deepened the anxiety among members of its foreign policy establishment, amidst speculation in media and political circles about the possible course the US administration might adopt if its demands for Pakistan to “do more” are not met immediately.

Pakistan’s National Security Committee is scheduled to meet in Islamabad on Thursday, with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi chairing it, to consider the latest situation that has developed in the wake of Trump’s speech followed by US officials’ warnings that Pakistan could lose military assistance and other privileges as a non-NATO ally of the US, if it continues to support the Taliban militia which is engaged in an armed struggle against US forces in Afghanistan.

Besides relevant civilian ministers, the National Security Committee meeting is attended by services chiefs and chiefs of intelligence agencies, which, in other words mean all the officials considered part of the foreign policy establishment.

There are fears and speculation in official circles and in the media that the US could possibly impose military and economic sanctions on Pakistan besides suspending military and economic assistance. This year, the US has already withheld $350 million in military funding over concerns Pakistan is not doing enough to fight terror.

The second and more sinister concern being expressed in the media and Islamabad’s official circles is the possibility of US air strikes inside Pakistani territory to target the hideouts of designated terrorists in Pakistani tribal areas.

Speculation in Islamabad is fuelled by parts of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s statement in which he didn’t rule out the possibility of air strikes inside Pakistani territory.  “The president has been clear that we are going to attack terrorists wherever they live,” Tillerson said.

The US military has been carrying out drone attacks inside Pakistan since the beginning of the war against terror, but these strikes were restricted to tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. This time, the fear is that the US could extend the area in which strikes would be carried out and, secondly, the US could use the air force to carry out the strikes.

Traditional diplomacy preceded and followed the US President’s speech in which he laid down the new policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan. A senior US general had just concluded his visit to Islamabad in which he met the Pakistani military high command.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Prime Minister Abbasi a few hours before Trump’s speech. The US envoy to Islamabad called on Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Bajwa in General headquarters to discuss the implications of the speech on US-Pakistan relations. What, however, remained publicly unsaid in this situation is the Pakistani foreign policy establishment’s concern over the increased “strategic role India has been assigned in Afghanistan by the US administration”.

Senior Pakistani officials said Pakistan’s security concerns have been neglected completely, which has given rise to a sense of estrangement towards Washington among the country’s foreign policy establishment.

One senior official said that they have been conveyed the understanding that President Trump’s warnings apply only in case, the Pakistan security establishment doesn’t change its course and doesn’t part ways with the factions of the Taliban which have hideouts inside Pakistan.

Pakistani officials said that the statements emanating from Washington-in the wake of President Trump’s speech- didn’t paint a total bleak picture for US-Pakistan relations. For instance, Tillerson expressed the wish to continue to work with Pakistan if it closes all militant safe havens inside its territory.

Similarly, General Bajwa appeared determined to rescue the relation from complete collapse when he told US Ambassador David Hale that, “Pakistan does not want material or financial assistance from the US, but needs to be trusted and treated with respect”.

The Army chief briefed the US Ambassador about the fact that Pakistan accords great importance to Afghanistan in its regional security policy, where US Ambassador, in turn, briefed Army chief about President Trump’s new Afghan policy.

Observers in Islamabad describe Army chief-US Ambassador meeting as the meeting that will define US-Pakistan relations in the coming days. It was the meeting in which Pakistan’s concerns over India’s increased strategic role in Afghanistan came under discussion.

The Pakistani military establishment has conveyed this concern to visiting US Generals that in the new scheme of things Pakistani security concerns have been completely ignored while US Administration intends to give increased role to its rival, India, in Afghanistan. However, at the same time, the Pakistani foreign policy establishment has been sending out signals that it doesn’t want to part ways with its traditional, and the oldest, ally, the United States.

The Chinese foreign ministry came to the rescue of Pakistan after the Trump speech by asking the international community to acknowledge Islamabad’s role in counter terrorism. However, even a strong-worded Chinese statement didn’t compel Pakistani foreign policy establishment to take an aggressive position vis-à-vis Trump’s speech. In its first reaction to the speech, the Pakistani Foreign Office was still talking about its desire to work closely with United States.

Behind the scenes, even the Chinese don’t provoke Pakistan to take a tough stance towards United States. Both formally and informally, the Chinese government has been taking part in deliberations with Washington on how to make Pakistan change its course and shun its duplicity in dealing with the Taliban and other extremist forces in the region.

Besides, parting ways with Washington doesn’t solve any of Pakistan’s foreign policy problems. Its traditional friends among the Gulf Arab states, which have always been a ready source of cash for the Pakistani state, are not too happy with the Pakistani establishment after it refused to participate in anti-Houthi operations in Yemen. Pakistani establishment also thinks it has barely escaped from the adverse effects of India’s “aggressive policy” to isolate Pakistan in the wake of the Uri attacks in Kashmir last year. And last but not the least, Washington always comes to the rescue of cash-starved Islamabad whenever it seeks financial assistance from international financial institutions like the IMF and the World Bank.

The Pakistan foreign policy establishment’s duplicity is evident in its dealing with Washington. It takes a very aggressive posture towards Washington whenever public sentiments are involved in any issue of importance in two countries relations. For instance, when a CIA contractor killed two citizens in Lahore in 2011, the Pakistan government arrested the contractor and issued strong statements for punishing him but in the background, both the military and political leadership were managing the contractor’s release through a blood money deal.

In the past, the Pakistani military has shown signs that it could live without US military assistance. For instance, Pakistani military sent back most of US military advisors who were training Pakistani military formations in counter-terrorism and counter insurgency operations, after US commandos intruded into Pakistani air space and raided a house in Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. But this estrangement was short-lived and soon the military assistance program was back to normal.

Politically speaking, the Pakistani ruling elite is extremely dependent on various US departments and agencies in maintaining their grip on power structure of the country.  This became obvious during the tenure of former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf when US diplomats started controlling the mechanics of the Pakistani political system. This was the time when American and British diplomats acted as mediators between Pakistan’s military rulers and the late Benazir Bhutto of the PPP in arranging the not-so-secret political deal that led to Benazir’s return to Pakistan from exile in London. Then, it was described as a marriage between the firepower of Pakistani Army with the popularity of Benazir Bhutto that was taking place under the auspices US State Department.

Even now, nobody could be sure how many aspirants in Islamabad are willing to enter or re-enter Pakistan’s power corridors using American offices.

The author can be contacted @Umer_1967.


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