A Boon for Pakistan?

by Sultan M Hali

Apparently, as a demonstration of antipathy towards the incoming government of Pakistan, President Donald Trump initiated a tirade of rhetoric against it. First economic constraints like restrictions on IMF bailout package were recommended and now United States Congress has passed the National Defence Authorisation Act-2019 (NDAA-19) which capped its security-related aid to Pakistan to $150 million, significantly below the historic level of more than $1 billion to $750 million per year.

Perhaps the Trump administration is attempting to pressurise Pakistan’s new government, which is poised to take over later this week. US President Donald Trump since assuming office has been tough on Pakistan over its inaction against terror groups. Trump in August last year unveiled his new South Asia policy and asked Pakistan to do more against such groups.

The US in January 2018 suspended more than $1.15 billion security assistance to Pakistan, accusing it of harbouring terror groups like the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network within its border and showing unwillingness to take “decisive actions” against them.

The US has also voiced its disapproval of growing Chinese involvement in Pakistan, adding to tensions in bilateral ties. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week had cautioned the IMF against a possible fresh bailout for Pakistan’s new government to pay off Chinese lenders who have invested in the strategic China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). In his trade wars against Chinese President Xi Jinping, Pakistan is being fired broadsides against as an ally of China.

However, this capping of economic aid under the head of security may in fact prove to be a blessing for Islamabad. The new legislation gets rid of the certification requirements for Pakistan’s action against the Haqqani Network or Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) — as was the case in the past few years for disbursement of US aid to Pakistan and it also gets rid of the authority to reimburse Pakistan for counter-terrorism. For the past few years, as relations between the erstwhile allies, Pakistan and the US soured, gradually the fund disbursement also started to dry up. The Coalition Support Fund (CSF) was reduced and now stopped altogether. On the other hand, the legislation does away with the onerous reporting requirements and certifications that have, in practice, made it difficult for Pakistan to receive such funds.

This waiver signals a strong favour to India from the US which is a clear duality of standards on part of US as regards Pakistan

Instead of bickering or expressing remorse, we should rejoice and perhaps the new government of Pakistan, under its slogan of “New Pakistan”, can refuse the measly $150 million and break the shackles of depending on US aid. In effect, Pentagon has chopped its own hands. It no longer has any tools to put pressure on Pakistan to undertake counter-terrorism activities or action against the Haqqani Network. The latter has been constantly used as whipping boy to beat Pakistan under the precept “give a dog a bad name and hang him.”

Bilateral relations between the USA and Pakistan may be low currently and there may be apprehensions in the minds of the State Department regarding Pakistan’s commitment to the peace process in Afghanistan and other issues but hindsight shows that diplomatic ties do not remain constant. If by any chance the ice melts and the US administration decides to resume some form of modest security assistance in the future, it will be authorised by the Congress to do so without having to produce detailed reports and make difficult certifications regarding Pakistan’s support vis-à-vis the Haqqani network and other perceived threats to the United States. In theory, the new funding authority does not permit counter-terrorism assistance, but only assistance related to border security.

Defence analysts in Pakistan are sore that despite its huge sacrifices, Pakistan has been castigated and blamed for playing a double game in Afghanistan. Many cynics in the US administration allege Pakistan to be clandestinely providing support to factions of the Afghan Taliban, who target US assets in Afghanistan. The May 2, 2011 elimination of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden at his secret hideout in Abbottabad, close to a military cantonment in Pakistan brought US-Pakistan ties to their lowest ebb. The attack on a Pakistani military check post at Salala on November 25, 2011, in which 25 military personnel of Pakistan army were martyred, infuriated Pakistan, which ordered the closure of the Shamsi Air Base in Baluchistan and the blockade of the Ground Lines of Communication (GLOC) for NATO forces in Afghanistan via Pakistan. Shamsi Air Base was being used to launch drone strikes against miscreants in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The US has been retaliating through the constant reduction of military aid to Pakistan as well as a cut in foreign military sales. Contrarily, the US has been cozying up to Pakistan’s arch rival, India. It has signed defence agreements with India and also sold military weapons. Recently, Indo-US ties were tested because of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), since New Delhi had announced its purchase of five S-400 Triumf air defence systems from Russia for an estimated $4.5 billion.

CAATSA is a United States federal law that imposed sanctions on Iran, North Korea and Russia. The bill was passed during the 115th Congress, 98–2 in the Senate. On August 2, 2017, President Donald Trump signed it into law. The Indo-Russian defence deal would have placed India in the CAATSA line of fire but now the US government has bent backwards to provide a renunciation of the law to accommodate India. The US Congress has passed a defence spending bill that seeks to amend CAATSA to provide waivers to America’s strategic partners like India from punitive sanctions against those doing business with Russia’s defence industry. The CAATSA waiver that the Congress has made available to India in the 2019 National Defense Authorisation Act (incongruously the same NDAA 2019 curtailed security-related US aid to Pakistan) should provide ample flexibility for New Delhi to proceed with the purchase of the Russian S-400 system. The US Congress has made use of a loophole in the language of the CAATSA legislation to benefit India. The loophole that allows President Donald Trump to benefit India is to certify that a country is “cooperating with the United States government on other matters that are critical to United States’ strategic national security interests. This waiver signals a strong favour to India from the US which is a clear duality of standards on part of US as regards to Pakistan.

Irrespective of India, we should stop being sore losers and consider this legislation as a mixed blessing for Pakistan. Over the longer term, that could prove to be a win for Islamabad.