By suspending $800 million in U.S. military aid to Pakistan, the administration of President Barack Obama appears to be taking a calculated gamble that Islamabad — and especially its powerful army — has no interest in substantially escalating the growing crisis in bilateral relations.
While it is still too early to say whether the gamble was sound, Pakistan has thus far protested the decision only verbally, insisting, as its army spokesman, Gen. Athar Abbas, did Monday that “the provision of aid with conditions is not acceptable.” He noted that the government had not yet been informed of the aid halt.
Analysts are particularly worried that Islamabad may express its displeasure by cutting U.S. and NATO supply lines to Afghanistan, as the Pakistani parliament threatened to do last month in retaliation for the U.S. raid that killed al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad.
Despite Washington’s efforts over the past 18 months to sharply reduce its dependence on Islamabad as a supply route, notably by forging new agreements with Central Asian states, more than half of the supplies and equipment used by the nearly 150,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan travel through Pakistan.
“The test is to see if they cut the supply routes,” Zia Mian, the director of the Project Peace and Security in South Asia at Princeton University, told IPS. “My own sense is that they haven’t decided what they’re going to do yet.”
The suspension, which was confirmed by White House Chief of Staff William Daley Sunday, marked the latest in a series of moves and statements by Washington to convey its deepening frustration and anger with what it sees as Islamabad’s failure to cooperate with U.S. efforts to defeat the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda and its local Pakistani affiliates.
The latest downward spiral in relations began after the May 1 raid against bin Laden, about which Islamabad was informed only after the fact.
Anti-U.S. opinion, however, was already running at record highs at the time due to popular outrage over the sharply increased number of U.S. drone strikes against suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistan and the extended controversy over the fate of Raymond Davis, a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) contractor who shot to death two men who he claimed had tried to rob him outside of Lahore in January.
After protracted negotiations and a reported agreement to pay compensation to the families, Davis was permitted to leave Pakistan in mid-March. But the subsequent six weeks of high-level meetings designed to patch up relations between the two countries collapsed with the bin Laden raid.
In recent weeks, U.S. officials have accused the Pakistani military of tipping off militants at four bomb-making sites in the tribal areas along the Afghan border before the army or the Frontier Corps could raid them. They have also repeatedly complained of the continued support by at least some elements of the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) unit for radical Islamist groups tied to al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
And last Thursday, the outgoing chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, told reporters that he had “not seen anything to disabuse” a New York Times report, quoting unnamed U.S. officials, that the ISI had directed the late-May abduction and murder of Pakistani investigative journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad, who had long detailed the close connections between ISI and Islamist extremists for the Asia Times and other publications.
“His [death] isn’t the first. For whatever reason, it has been used as a method historically,” Mullen, who did not explicitly blame the ISI, added, in comments deemed “extremely irresponsible” by the Pakistani information ministry. The ISI has vehemently denied any involvement in Shahzad’s death.
“Adm. Mullen’s statement has been the clearest indication of how very frustrated the administration has become because Mullen, more than anyone else in the administration, really invested a lot of personal capital in improving the relationship and moving it to one of strategic partnership,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution.
Contributing to that frustration since the bin Laden assassination has been Pakistan’s announcement last month that Shamsi airbase in Baluchistan, from which the CIA launched drone strikes against Taliban and al-Qaeda targets, will no longer be available to U.S. personnel and equipment.
Since the Davis case, Islamabad has also sought to enforce other curbs on CIA activity on its territory, although it recently reportedly lifted a freeze on visa approvals for CIA officers, dozens of whom are reported to have recently entered the country.
Earlier in June, Islamabad, however, expelled some 120 U.S. Special Forces personnel — as well as a dozen British officers — who had been training and equipping Pakistan’s paramilitary Frontier Corps, the security force based in the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA) along the Afghan frontier.
It was those actions — as well as Pakistan’s repeated refusal to launch an offensive against the so-called Haqqani faction of the Taliban in North Waziristan — that reportedly prompted the administration to make the decision to suspend $800 million of the roughly $2 billion that the Pakistani military was due to receive this year.
“When it comes to our military assistance, we’re not prepared to continue providing that at the pace that we were providing it unless and until we see certain steps taken,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday.
Of the total, about $300 million was to reimburse Pakistan some of the costs incurred in its military operations in FATA and along the Afghan border, while the rest was related to equipment and training costs for the Frontier Corps.
The Pentagon stressed that the aid could still go forward provided that certain conditions are met. Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, said Monday that the aid withheld by Washington is “directly tied to those decisions by the Pakistani military to curtail training and to not grant visas for some of the U.S. personnel that we need to get in. If those things change, then this aid will change as well,” he added.
For his part, Abbas stressed that the suspended assistance will not affect the army’s current operations in FATA. “We have always claimed that we are conducting these operations without any external support whatsoever,” he said. “…[S]o we will continue with that because we feel very strongly that this is a common enemy, a common threat.”
“The aid clearly was not motivating the Pakistani military to move even on the most important issues, like bin Laden and going after the Haqqani network,” Felbab-Brown told IPS. “The big question is whether it will make them better behaved or make them more intransigent.”
“I think they’re extremely sensitive about this suspension, not necessarily because of the diminution of the aid itself, but, more importantly, the symbolism at a time when the military institution itself feels very vulnerable domestically,” she added. “I think it may encourage them to take a more defensive crouch.”
Daniel Markey, a South Asia specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), echoed that concern, predicting in a note posted on the CFR Web site that, “Alone, cutting U.S. military assistance will not force Pakistan to reassess its strategic posture.”
On the other hand, he added, “if Washington’s harder line is being taken within the context of a more comprehensive strategy that includes other points of U.S. influence, then this deeper slide in military-to-military relations might be worth suffering.”
Such a strategy would include lobbying Islamabad’s allies in Beijing
and Riyadh and press Pakistan for greater cooperation, he wrote.
(Inter Press Service)