by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 26th July 11
Has the ISI’s hospitality to Osama bin Laden, and Islamabad’s furious response to his killing, become a tipping point in the US-Pakistan relationship? That Washington is intent on painting Islamabad black is evident from the American media’s front-page coverage of last week’s arrest of Kashmiri separatist, Ghulam Nabi Fai. Not only has Washington belatedly acted on the worst kept secret in town --- that Fai’s Kashmir American Council was an ISI-funded lobby group --- but it also embarrassed Islamabad (if that is any longer possible) by leaking every detail of the story to the media. As with the holding back of US military aid worth $800 million, Washington’s urge to punish Pakistan currently overrides its desire to remain engaged with that difficult partner. For India, this poses crucial questions: is this mere bickering in an old and abusive relationship? Or does this portend a more fundamental change?
Any American re-evaluation of its engagement with Pakistan is done with an eye on the elephant in the room: China. Pakistan has cunningly stoked American apprehension that any downturn in their relationship would drive Islamabad towards Beijing. Given the history of the latter relationship --- including the illicit transfer of nuclear and missile technology and components --- Washington has chosen to tolerate Pakistan’s perversity rather than deal with a vengeful Islamabad glowering from Beijing’s lap.
Significantly, China has appeared less than eager to shoulder the burden of Pakistan. After the US held back $800 million in military aid, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Hong Lei, was asked on 12th July whether China would fill that gap. His answer: “As a friendly neighbour, China has all along been providing assistance to Pakistan within its capacity, helping Pakistan improve people's well-being and realize sustainable economic and social development. China will continue doing so in the future.”
The excitable Pakistani and Indian media interpreted this as China’s willingness to take up the slack. But a careful reading of Hong’s statement would find not a word on military aid. What Beijing really said was: “China has a limited capacity to help even its good friend, Pakistan. As in the past, China will continue providing aid for economic and social development.”
Watchers from India fear that America will soon abandon the tough love and revert to playing Islamabad’s cuckold again. And Washington analysts have begun their familiar drumbeat: relations with the Pakistani military must be kept alive at all costs. (e.g. Howard Schaffer: “It is regrettable that the charges against Fai have been raised at a point when U.S.-Pakistan relations face a host of problems far more consequential than alleged wrongdoings by Pakistan’s lobbyists in Washington.”)
There is a fundamental flaw in such binary reasoning, in which Washington must either cut off relations with Islamabad entirely, or continue willingly to be taken to the cleaners. The reality, evident over the last five years, is that Washington has become progressively less trustful of Pakistan, maintaining relations but demanding more proof of Islamabad’s bona fides. A detailed reading of America’s diplomatic cables from Islamabad (Wikileaks, thanks!) highlights this crumbling trust.
Washington’s disillusionment began long before the Osama embarrassment, when it caught the Pakistan Army with its hand in the aid till. The US has given Islamabad $1.2 billion annually: $200 million for the civilian Economic Support Fund (ESF); and $860 million in Coalition Support Funds (CSF) reimbursements. The latter requires Pakistan to submit reimbursement claims for military operations in the tribal areas that support US operations in Afghanistan. But the US embassy in Islamabad, which scrutinises Pakistan’s claims, complained to Washington (in cable 129633 dated 10th Nov 07) that much of the money is siphoned off. According to that cable, “only 50-60 percent of CSF funds actually reach the military, and less than half of that may reach that segment of the armed forces bearing the burden of that claimed expenditure.” While Pakistan claimed $55 million for helicopter operations from Jul 06 – Feb 07, the embassy estimated that the operations of Pakistan’s entire helicopter force could not possibly have cost more than $20 million, since barely 20% of the army’s Cobra attack helicopter force was functional.
Washington’s growing distrust of its putative ally was also evident in what it did to prevent sophisticated American night vision devices (NVDs) from being passed on to militants. Each NVD provided to the Pakistan Army had to be physically brought to Peshawar every month for end-use verification by US officials. Pakistani generals complained bitterly that important operations were being jeopardised by pulling out NVDs at crucial junctures, but Washington was having none of it. The trust had gone.
Pakistan’s declining currency is now evident in Washington’s outreach to authoritarian, pro-Russia regimes in Central Asia for developing its Northern Delivery Network (NDN) for supplying its forces in Afghanistan. Earlier 85% of US supplies came through Pakistan; that dependency is now 50% and will reduce to 25% next year. General William M Fraser, the nominated chief of the US Air Force Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM), told the US Air Force Magazine: “In 2010, two additional routes were added through the Baltics and Central Asia and continue to improve the processes, facilitating a faster, less costly cargo flow… USTRANSCOM (has also secured) access to additional airfields and seaports in the Persian Gulf. Using a concept called multi-modal operations, large volumes of cargo and thousands of vehicles were moved by sea to locations in closer proximity to the USCENTCOM area of operations, by truck from the seaports to the nearby airfields and then by air to Afghanistan.”
No American trucks through Pakistan does not mean no American truck with Pakistan. Washington will continue to engage Islamabad, but the rules of that engagement are now in transition.