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US-Pakistan: Coming back to Senses

By Imtiaz Gul

Weekly Pulse, July 22, 2011

American Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s statement on Pakistan during the press stake-out with her Indian counterpart S.M.Krishna on July 19th at New Delhi augurs well for the strained bilateral relationship that, in recent weeks, slithered to levels never seen before; in the aftermath of the May 2nd raid into Abbottabad by US SEALs to terminate Osama bin Laden both countries indulged in offensive rhetoric and administrative retribution; Pakistan, sent back 125 of the 129 military trainers – who were here to train commandos in counter-terror techniques and guerrilla warfare (Almost three dozen British trainers were also relieved of their training duties early July). It also put a squeeze on visas for American nationals, too, because the military establishment suspects most of them to be intelligence officials or private CIA security contractors. In retaliation, the Obama administration withheld 800 million of the roughly 2 billion dollars it owes Pakistan since December 2010, and conditioned it to the recall of trainers and relaxation in visa restrictions. Washington, insist officials in Islamabad, was also cross because snubbed a an American request for permanent presence of American military personnel in all airbases of the country. Additionally, Pakistan had until sofar been evasive on the American demand for an all-out military offensive against al-Qaeda-linked militant groups – including the Haqqani Network – which US military officials believe are using this border region for exporting terror into Afghanistan. 

Through the media, the US administration flagged the suspension of 800 million dollars as “security assistance”, whereas Pakistanis insist these are largely reimbursements that the Pakistan army, under a bilateral agreement, charges the US for deployment of almost 150,000 troops on the western border as part of the US-led anti-terror coalition hunting terrorists. 

But Clinton’s reiteration in New Delhi that Pakistan remains a front-line ally and it has lost more citizens and soldiers than the USA was heartening, and also underscored a fundamental reality in the US-Pakistan relations; both need each other. 

She also hoped that the bilateral cooperation would continue for shared objectives and mutual concerns – positive vibes as a whole indeed in the cotext of the recent spat that began with the US frustration boiling over and culminating in the suspension of what was touted as “security assistance.” 

In Washington, Pakistani ambassador Hussein Haqqani also clarified in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) Friday that what the US has withheld or delayed is coalition support payments and is not aid.” 

Officials in Islamabad were also incensed over the American talk of “billions of dollars in aid for Pakistan since 2002.” 

In reality, Pakistani officials point out, total disbursements to Pakistan in the last decade have been around 19 billion dollars (verifiable from the websites of American department of finance and the State Department), almost 15 billion of this has been security related (equipment for troops on border,training ) but the bulk of it – roughly slightly less than nine billion were payments under Coalition Support Funds (CSF). Also, the hyped-up Kerry-Lugar-Burman Act , passed in October 2009, had promised 1.5 billion dollars annual civilian assistance but, due to legal complications in the Congress, Pakistan has received about 300 million dollars so far. 

Dr.Ashfaq Hassan Khan, a former finance advisor, and currently dean of Business School at the National University of Sciences and Technology, Islamabad, says that until November 2008, Pakistan received about $10.76 billion. Of which $6,062 million i.e.56.3 percent was reimbursements under CSF. 

The remaining 4.7 billion included a 1.495 billion debt write-off, and some 487 million for food and social sector projects.

“In actual terms, Pakistan received $4706 million financial assistance from the United States during the period 2002-2008,” Dr.Khan told Pulse. 

Since 2009, both US and Pakistani officials have been squabbling over, according to US officials, “inflated invoices from Islamabad,” and consequently no major disbursement under KLB Act or substantial reimbursement under the Coalition Support Funds has taken place.

Most of Pakistani officials meanwhile fume over how the United States tends to hoodwink the world opinion by talking of the “billions of dollars in aid” to Pakistan.

“The real numbers present an altogether different story and it is really unfair to include even the costs of operations in the border areas as security assistance,” Maj.Gen.Athar Abbas, the army spokesman, said in a few media interviews.

The American attitude invited scorn even from a harsh critic of the Pakistan army, Ayaz Amir, a journalist-turned politician but still a very popular columnist.

“The Americans want the Pakistan army to go into North Waziristan and set ablaze the entire length of the Afghan-Pakistan border ... this at a time when they are exploring avenues to talk to the Taliban,” wrote Amir, also dubbed as a perennial cynic of the army, in his latest column for The News (July 15th), in a reference to Washington’s desperate attempts to open dialogue Mulla Omar’s Taliban, and its demand that Pakistan go after Mulla Omar’s most trusted ally the Haqqanis – the second strongest component of the anti-US insurgency. The Haqqanis, belong to one of the largest Pashtoon tribes divided both sides of the border.

It is pretty obvious, the US anger is not about the “financial aid and assistance” alone. As the Americans begin the drawdown in Afghanistan to cut some of the pinching 7 billion dollars a month spending in Afghanistan, they themselves are exploring the peace option but want Pakistan to go all-out for the war option.

And herein lies the core of differences; a conflict between the US short-term objective to extricate most of its troops from Afghanistan, and the Pakistani attempt to prevent further damage to long term interests in a war that has it more than 35,000 civilian and military casualties, and severely hurt the economy as a consequence of an extremely insecure environment.

The divergence, however, is not likely to totally derail the need-based relationship altogether for two reasons; the US partial withdrawal and presence in Afghanistan requires a friction-free engagement with Pakistan. Secondly, once the US announced suspension of payments to Pakistan, Beijing instantly jumped to reiterate its support for Islamabad.

Gen.David Petraeus’s air-dash to Rawalpindi on July 13th for a meeting with the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, and ISI chief, Gen.Ahmed Shuja Pasha’s parleys with his counterparts in Washington around the same time should also be seen in the context of the mutual dependence for a way out of the Afghan conflict.

(The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad, and also the author of The Most Dangerous Place, Pakistan’s Lawless Frontier (Penguin US/UK).

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk