The tipping point in Pak-US ties

Never before has the Pakistan-United States ties reached a tipping point like the one they have reached now. Just a few days before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the top US military officer, General Joseph Dunford, are set to touch down at Islamabad for a few hours, the US administration has announced the cancellation of $300 million in Coalition Support Funds (CSF).

Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Kone Faulkner has said the decision is taken due to a lack of ‘Pakistani decisive actions in support of the South Asia Strategy’. With this, the amount of funds held under the CSF has gone up to $800 million.

This is the sixth big dig, though not unexpected, that the Trump administration has taken at Pakistan; in his New Year tweet, the US president had accused Pakistan of rewarding past assistance with ‘nothing but lies and deceit’, and followed that by withholding $500 million in CSF.

The campaign, visibly led by the US and India, to grey-list Pakistan for non-compliance with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) rules was the second occasion to corner the country and push it into isolation.

The third step was to shut the door to training and educational programmes on Pakistani military officers in early August.

Only five days after PTI’s electoral victory, Pompeo had warned that any potential International Monetary Fund bailout for Pakistan’s new government should not be used to repay Chinese lenders. “Make no mistake. We will be watching what the IMF does,” Pompeo said. “There’s no rationale for IMF tax dollars, and associated with that American dollars that are part of the IMF funding, for those to go to bail out Chinese bondholders or China itself,” he said, in what was the fourth indicator of where the relationship was headed.

This also suggested that the US is out to squeeze Pakistan for its strategic-economic closeness to China too. The US and its allies also practically reject any Russian or Chinese initiative on Afghanistan. Unlike Beijing and Moscow, Washington still primarily holds Pakistan responsible for the strife in Afghanistan.

The fifth indignant moment, or the indicator of deteriorating bilateral relations, was the congratulatory phone call Pompeo made to Prime Minister Imran Khan. What should have been just an exchange of pleasantries ballooned into a diplomatic row over conflicting accounts of the discussion.

The US State Department maintained that Pompeo had ‘raised the importance of Pakistan taking decisive action against all terrorists operating in the country’.

Pakistan disputed this, saying there was no mention at all in the conversation about terrorists operating in Pakistan, and called on US officials to ‘immediately correct’ their version.

Last but not the least, through the appointment of the 67-year-old, Afghan-born Republican foreign policy veteran Zalmay Khalilzad as a special envoy on Afghanistan in late August, the US has certainly upped the ante.

Khalilzad is known to be biased against Pakistan. He has been publicly hurling allegations at Pakistan in his articles, interviews as well as in his political autobiography and on his Twitter account. His re-emergence on the scene raises questions as to whether Washington is at all focused on an inclusive peace process and engagement with Pakistan, or is it interested only in maintaining the status quo.

All these indicators, according to Sameer Lalwani, co-director of the South Asia programme at the Stimson Centre think tank in Washington, reflect the ‘calibrated, incremental ratcheting up of pressure on Pakistan’.

The US demands obviously are rooted in the belief that Pakistan string-pulls Afghan Taliban and supports those focused on the Indian-held Kashmir.

But General John Allen, who had commanded the US-NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan from July 2011 to February 2013, offers a view that is starkly different from that of the current administration.

“For a long time, I believed that peace in Afghanistan passed through Islamabad and Rawalpindi. In many respects, I now think that the long-term stability of Pakistan passes not just through Islamabad and Rawalpindi but also through Kabul. So, getting the Pakistanis, the Afghans and the international community to have a similar view that a stable Afghanistan, one that has the capacity both for governmental stability, security to the population, and very importantly, a viable reinvigorated economy, is not just important to Afghanistan it is also important to the long term stability of Pakistan,” he said at a Brookings Institution seminar in May this year.

General Allen, who is now the president of the Brookings Institution, has also pointed to another triangular threat that Afghanistan faces i.e. inextricable link between criminality, corruption, and the insurgency. “In my mind, there was a triangular threat to Afghanistan’s future but also, in a military context, you had the ideological insurgency, which we would euphemistically call the Taliban, you had the drug enterprise which fuelled an awful lot of insurgent and criminal behaviour and then you had the criminal patronage network. I don’t believe we were properly organised frankly to deal with that.”

All these factors currently weigh heavily on the Pak-US relations. The big question facing the new government is whether it can convey to Pompeo that the continued US-led vilification campaign, including the aid cuts and grey-listing, accompanied with the ‘do more’ mantra, leaves little room for forward movement? It restricts the manoeuvring space for the government, which feels there is little to engage on if the US brinkmanship continues. Other regional powers such as China, Russia, and Iran share Pakistan’s view on the approach towards regional peace, and hence, Pakistan can’t jeopardise its interests that are tied more into the region, than with the US anyway.

Published in Daily Times, September 3rd 2018.