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Pak-US relations: A candid dialogue

January 17, 2018

Following the US president’s scathing tweet regarding the aid given to Pakistan for the war on terror, a sizzling debate surfaced on whether Trump was factually correct about the overall volume of aid. In addition, there are questions over whether Pakistan has offered significant human and material sacrifices in this war.

There is no doubt that the US has provided substantial economic and military aid to Pakistan, not only since 2002 but during the last six decades or more – though there have been several intervals of negligible aid owing to America’s diminishing geostrategic interests in the country. During the ongoing war on terror, the US has, alongside economic and military aid, provided considerable financial assistance in other forms. A key form of assistance in this category is the Coalition Support Fund (CSF).

With the advent of the war, the US Congress, on the request of the Bush administration, started appropriating billions of dollars to reimburse America’s close strategic allies for their logistical and operational support to US-led counterterrorism actions. According to the US Department of Defence, the CSF is a programme to reimburse allies for logistical, military and other expenses incurred in backing America’s military operations in the war on terror.

Overall, Pakistan has been reimbursed over $13 billion under the CSF. As a result, Trump’s claim is factually correct. But it would conceptually incorrect to categorise this amount as ‘aid’. The reimbursement process under the CSF is quite rigorous as the relevant Pakistani authorities first spend this money on food, ammunition, transportation and all the expenses and bills are approved after a due process of audits and verification by the US Department of Defence.

The US has also supported Pakistan in other ways. It was because of America’s support that Pakistan entered into a debt-rescheduling agreement for its entire stock of $12.5 billion owed to the Paris Club creditors in December 2001. As a result, the country was able to obtain generous terms for this rescheduling. This agreement granted a repayment period for 38 years (with a grace period of 15 years). In addition to bilateral aid for Pakistan, America has played a vital role in supporting Pakistan at other forums. The US was the largest donor in the aftermath of three devastating disasters: the Kashmir earthquake in 2005, the rise of militancy in Malakand and Swat in 2009 and the 2010 floods. Similarly, Usaid has funded a number of projects in the health, education, energy and other sectors in Pakistan and its overall contribution is worthwhile in different social sectors.

Let’s consider the second aspect of Trump’s tweet: that Pakistan has fooled the American leadership in the war on terror. The US has several complaints and grievances and some of these could be valid. But it is utterly disingenuous to say that Pakistan has not reciprocated US ‘generosity’. As soon as the US embraced military ruler General Musharraf and restarted aid to his regime, he also made full efforts to appease the country.

As Zahid Hussain states in ‘Frontline Pakistan: the struggle with militant Islam’, Musharraf transferred quite a few of forces assigned to the ISI, including a number of high-ranking officers, to ensure that no pro-Taliban elements remained. It is believed that the withdrawal of the support catalysed the swift fall of the Taliban regime. However, later events have shown that the fall of the Taliban government was not the end but the beginning of a new war in Afghanistan.

Along with intelligence support, Pakistan gave full logistical support. It is relevant to recall that during the First Gulf War, when Turkey allowed the US to use its soil in the military campaign against Iraq, a commentator pointed out that “few countries in the region actually took the security risks that Ankara did”. This can precisely be said of what Pakistan did for the US, which led to enormous internal repercussions and instability.

However, while the US has not been able to win the allegiance of Pakistanis through aid, it has successfully done so in the case of the country’s civil and military leadership. Whether it was the Raymond Davis incident or the unabated drone strikes in Pakistan – as revealed by the whistle-blower website WikiLeaks – the US had acquired the tacit consent of the Pakistani leadership, regardless of their public denunciation to win domestic support.

A number of documents released by WikiLeaks revealed that the US had exercised an enormous amount of leverage and influenced decision-making in the country’s military and political affairs. To be fair, whether there are men in uniform or a civil leadership at the helm, a pro-US approach to foreign policymaking, particularly with regard to the war on terror, has been in vogue. In a meeting in May 2008 with a US congressional delegation, former president Zardari ensured that Pakistan would consult America on all matters. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif had also assured the US that he was pro-American despite his often publicly critical stance on the country’s policies, particularly the drone attacks in Pakistan. According to these cables, the positions taken by former prime ministerYousaf Raza Gilani and former COAS General AshfaqParvezKayani towards the US were broadly similar.

If the US has provided economic and military aid to Pakistan, it has also won the loyalty of the Pakistani leadership to safeguard its geo-strategic interests related to the war on terror. Referring to the compliance of Pakistan’s military and civilian leadership during their alliance in the war, Abdul Salam Zaeef, Afghanistan’s envoy in Pakistan during the Taliban regime, has written in his autobiography that among the Guantanamo prisoners, Pakistan was known as “Majbooristan, the land that is obliged to fulfil each of America’s demands”.

There is a lesson to be learnt from this episode. While economic aid can help in poverty alleviation and provide much-needed capital for specific social sectors and non-civilian aid helps the military to modernise its weaponry, aid in general also compromises the sovereignty of aid-receiving countries. Our aid relationship with the US illustrates that when Pakistan was provided more aid, the latter had considerable leverage over it. In periods of little or no aid, the US had little influence over policymaking in the country. The 1990s is a glaring example of this.

While Pakistan was a pariah state for the US, the latter was also unsuccessful in stopping the former from conducting nuclear tests. All US temptations and threats have failed. In addition, the desertion during that period had also made the US ineffective as Pakistan had allegedly developed nuclear links with countries, including Iran, Libya and North Korea. The emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan is, of course, another lesson that the US should learn from the total abandonment of Pakistan. Both partners have paid a price for the divorce.

Trump is naïve to say that US aid has been in vain. America has undoubtedly had a strong influence on Pakistan’s leadership. In either case, more aid for Pakistan means better relations with the US. But at the same time, it also means more US influence and some compromises on Pakistan’s sovereignty.

In view of the somewhat divergent security interests in the region, there is a need for a realistic and holistic approach from both sides. Mutually agreed security goals can be accomplished through a more constructive and candid policy dialogue and engagement rather than through contemptuous tweets. Each side needs to understand the implications of one’s action or inaction for the other.

(By The writer is a postdoctoral research fellow at the German Development Institute at Bonn, Germany.)

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