Saturday, May 21, 2016

Revised/updated Business Recorder Editorial May 21, 2016

Pak-US conundrum Pakistan-US relations appear to be passing once more through a lean patch as the US House of Representatives has imposed strict restrictions on aid to Pakistan while the US Senate has blocked using American taxpayers' money to subsidise the sale of F-16s to Pakistan. This was confirmed by Advisor on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz the other day when he revealed that the last three months have been ones of strain in the relationship. Sartaj Aziz defiantly responded to the rejection of the agreed terms of the F-16s deal by asserting that Pakistan would seek the F-16s from elsewhere if the measure was not reversed. The US administration of President Obama is trying to persuade the US Congress by arguing that the measures would create further problems in Washington's difficult but important relationship with Islamabad. The US State Department has been at pains to reassure Islamabad that Washington stands committed to helping Pakistan. However, these sweet nothings from the administration notwithstanding, these developments, though not unexpected for informed observers, spell trouble ahead for the Pakistan-US relationship. Apart from the F-16s issue, which may not offer easily available alternative options despite Sartaj Aziz's brave words (the only alternative on offer so far being an upgrade of the existing F-16 fleet by Turkey), the issue of civilian aid and the outstanding dues on account of the Coalition Support Funds are all in limbo. Pakistan needs the US despite the twists and turns historically in this oft troubled relationship. Putting all our eggs in the China basket as an alternative may not serve the country's interests. The US Congress has imposed three conditions on the release of 450 million dollars in aid. First, the US Congress wants Pakistan to act against the Haqqani network; second, the US Secretary of Defence will have to certify that Pakistan is not using its military or any funds or equipment provided by the US to persecute minority groups seeking political or religious freedom; third, and perhaps most importantly, the sense of the House resolution adopted declares Dr Shakil Afridi a hero for helping track down Osama bin Laden and wants his unconditional release. Why are there emerging signs of a return to the downgrade of Pakistan reminiscent of developments after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989? It may be recalled that Pakistan was repaid for its alliance with Washington and the west to bleed and eventually oust the Soviets from Afghanistan by having nuclear-related sanctions imposed in the 1990s, apart from other signs of a cooling in relations. After 9/11, the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan gave birth to Musharraf's duality of policy, in which ostensibly we were US allies yet allowed or turned a blind eye to the retreating Afghan Taliban finding safe havens on Pakistani soil, from which, after regrouping, they launched their resistance against the US/NATO and Kabul government installed by the latter. During this period, the US/NATO logistics needs for the war in Afghanistan forced Washington to grit its teeth and accept the duality of Pakistan's policy while continuing to harp on the 'do more' mantra. But since the withdrawal largely of NATO and the US forces, such restraint seems no longer necessary. The mood in Congress is a reflection of this reality. This development could have been foreseen, and indeed has been predicted for years by informed observers, but Pakistan's foreign policy seems adrift and bereft of forward planning in the absence of a full time foreign minister. Another factor is the changing geopolitical realities in the region. Washington is wooing India as an ally against increasingly powerful China, a zero sum game to Pakistan's disadvantage. Forays by militant groups into India from Pakistan (the latest example being the Pathankot attack), denials of official involvement notwithstanding, do not help matters. Pakistan claims limited influence on the Afghan Taliban. The Haqqani network, now firmly entrenched within the ranks of the Afghan Taliban, is the biggest irritant because of its spectacular actions in Kabul and recently Kunduz. Pakistan finds itself on the horns of a dilemma. It cannot accept the reversal of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's outreach to Islamabad after the last deadly bombing in Kabul with the attached demand that Islamabad declare the Afghan Taliban "irreconcilables" and take action against them inside Pakistan. On the one hand, Pakistan has its hands full combating homegrown terrorists. On the other, Islamabad cannot deliver the Taliban, however difficult that is proving in practice, to the peace table and at the same time attack them. Wisdom seems to have dawned in the Quadrilateral Group meeting in Islamabad on May 18, when all four participants, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the US and China reiterated that there is no military solution in Afghanistan and the only viable option is to continue pursuing the peace process, no matter how tortuous. Reality bites, albeit belatedly, and the Group has realistically assessed the ground realities. What is needed now is a redoubling of efforts to persuade the Taliban to stop seeking a strengthened position on the battlefield through their ongoing spring/summer offensive and invest in a peace to bring relief to the war-weary and suffering people of Afghanistan. Also, our 'orphaned' foreign policy cries out for a full time foreign minister to reverse the adverse mood in the US Congress, with help from the Obama administration.

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