‘There is considerable frustration with Pakistan on Capitol Hill and among career officials in the executive branch over the country’s ongoing support for various militant groups, including the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan, and production of tactical nuclear weapons. Members of Congress and committee state are thinking through how to reform the U.S.-Pakistan defense relationship,’writes prominent research scholar Stephen Tankel in the introduction to a latest report ‘Art of the Possible: Restructuring the Defense Relationship with Pakistan’.
The report published by CNAS (Center For a New American Society) was released the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald J Trump held detailed discussions on key issues of trade and terror among others in their first meeting at White House.
Flagging concerns over Pakistan’s counter terrorism strategy, the report further adds, ‘There is no indication of expanding counter-terrorism operations to target state-allied groups like the Taliban, the Haqqani Network (HQN), or Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). The first two collaborate with Al Qaeda and with anti-Pakistani organizations, especially against Afghan forces across the border.’
‘State-allied groups are not only useful against India and in Afghanistan. The military and ISI have also used the Taliban and HQN to reorient anti-state Islamist militants toward fighting in Afghanistan. LeT has been used to degrade anti-state militants and also against Baloch separatists,’ the report further adds.
The mood in Washington DC is grim and a calibrated approach to contain Pakistan is shaping up. ‘Increasing frustration’ against the United State’s ‘frontline ally on the war against terror’ is an oft used phrase by lawmakers and diplomats in conversations. This mood change has been happening slowly and steadily. Lawmaker Judge Ted Poe, who moved bills in Congress declare Pakistan as a state sponsor of terror and cut down of military -financial aid says, “The Afghanistan issue cannot be resolved without addressing terror from Pakistan. American aid must be immediately cut down and not used to fuel terrorism by Pakistan.”
In his first term as President, Barack Obama reached out to Islamabad with the promise of a strategic relationship. “America will remain a strong supporter of Pakistan’s security and prosperity long after the guns have fallen silent,” Obama said in 2009. A bipartisan congressional legislation backed this promise. The commonly known Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act (The Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009 ) earmarked up to $1.5 billion annually in non-military assistance for five years and “such sums as may be necessary” for security assistance to Pakistan. The first of its kind military-civilian assistance package was also aimed at strengthening the democratically elected government in the country and correcting the civil-military imbalance.
In 2011 US paid up to 3.6 billion USD to Pakistan for reliance towards Ground Line of Communication (GLOCs) for its troops in Afghanistan. But the results have been far from satisfactory as Pakistan remains the safe haven for terrorists even after Osama Bin Laden was hunted down by US Navy seals in the heart of Islamabad in Abbotabad . Terror groups on its soil have operated with impunity, targeting the region and world.
For the first time a frustrated Obama administration withheld $300 million in military reimbursements for Pakistan in the summer of 2016 for its failure to crack down on the Haqqani network. In addition Congress blocked U.S. Government funding for the sale of additional F-16 aircrafts to Islamabad. Now Trump has asked the Pentagon to do a troop review in Afghanistan and an Af-Pak policy review. Indications are 3000-5000 troops could be added to the existing 10000 on the ground. General John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has signaled the desire for a harsher policy towards Pakistan seeking a ‘holistic review’ of US-Pak ties importantly in the Af-Pak context.
Meanwhile, India without any boots on the ground has emerged as the dependable partner towards civilian rebuilding of war ravaged Afghanistan. In his joint press remarks at the Rose Garden in White House, President Trump remarked, “I also thank the Indian people for their initiatives in Afghanistan.” The joint statement entitled ‘US and India-Prosperity through Partnership’ also added: ‘President Trump welcomed further Indian contributions to promote Afghanistan’s democracy, stability, prosperity, and security. Recognising the importance of their respective strategic partnerships with Afghanistan, the leaders committed to continue close consultations and cooperation in support of Afghanistan’s future’; not withstanding Pakistan’s accusations of India’s strategic depth moves in Afghanistan.
Modi and Trump after three useful telephonic conversations, struck up a personal rapport in their debut meeting in DC amidst nervous anxiety on the Indian side. Trump is yet to have a meaningful conversation with Pak Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The only call between the two was post Trump’s election victory, wherein Pakistan went to town with a transcript of the ‘fantastic conversation’, much to the annoyance of White House. Nawaz who flew in to attend the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh during Trump’s first overseas visit to Saudi, found neither a meaningful audience, except an exchange of pleasantries, with the American President nor his speaking slot. A Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) designated to be the inter-agency focal point for Af-Pak during the Obama administration has also now been merged back into the State Department’s South and Central Asia Bureau.
But India cannot fill in the Pakistani shoes to assist America in its war in Afghanistan. Complexities remain including the apprehension that Pakistan will look to arms supplies from China and Russia if pushed against the wall by US. Pak’s inhibition towards counter terror cooperation are a concern for the US that still needs to find alternate sustainable supply routes for its troops
In February this year, another report by the The Hudson Institute penned by Former Pak Ambassador Husain Haqqani and Heritage Foundation’s Lisa Curtis argued, ‘Moving forward, the Trump administration must link U.S. policies toward Pakistan directly to U.S. objectives, especially in Afghanistan. The U.S. must find ways to limit Pakistan’s ability to frustrate U.S. goals in Afghanistan. Likewise, the U.S. must refuse to get involved in the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir and instead focus on diplomatically isolating Pakistan over its continued support to terrorist groups that attack India and have connections to international terrorism. ‘ Lisa is now in the National Security Council in White House and a strong advocate of revision of DC’s policy towards Pakistan.
The listing of Syed Salahuddin, the valley born leader of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen operating from Pakistan, as global terrorist by the US State department just ahead of the Modi-Trump talks also came as a shot in the arm for New Delhi. ‘India appreciated the United States designation of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen leader as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist as evidence of the commitment of the United States to end terror in all its forms. In this spirit, the leaders welcomed a new consultation mechanism on domestic and international terrorist designations listing proposals,’ said the joint statement. For the first time an indigenous Kashmiri Indian national hailed by Pakistan as a ‘freedom fighter’ has been listed. The State department’s notification is in line with New Delhi’s claim that the fire in the Kashmir valley is fuelled from across the line of control. This is being seen as an important shift in US policy that so far sought ‘both sides to be responsible’ in bringing the situation in Kashmir under control.
The Hudson report asked the Trump administration to not view or call Pakistan an ally till it shows visible change. ‘Designating Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism, as some U.S. congressional members have advised, is unwise in the first year of a new administration, but should be kept as an option for the longer term. Indeed the administration should state up front that it intends to review the intelligence on Pakistani involvement in supporting terror much more critically than its predecessors,’ it said.
‘Congress and the Trump administration should reduce the scope of the defense relationship in order to improve the return on investment and rebalance the overall bilateral relationship in favour of the civilian government’, advises the CNAS report
Ted Poe’s bill for designating Pak as terror sponsor state will not possibly sail through the Congress. But it will find substantial resonance of a future possibility. While US charts the way forward in ties, It would be in Pakistan’s interest to act against terror for its own national security and prevent the frequent bloodbath of its own citizens. India which is selling itself as the real deal to Trump, will hope that while successive US governments dangled carrots in the past to Islamabad, the new regime will find effective sticks to reign in Pak’s military and ISI backed nefarious plans.