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Opinion

January 14, 2018

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A review on the cards?

Lets cast our minds to a few years back. It’s the mid of 2008 and the PPP supremo, Asif Zardari, has set his eyes on occupying the highest office of the land.

He has the numbers but a fly in the ointment is how to persuade the Americans to acquiesce in throwing overboard the incumbent president, General Pervez Musharraf, with whom they have been rubbing shoulders for the past six years. Zardari has already appointed a US-based adroit ‘spin doctor’ as Islamabad’s top diplomat in Washington. The hectic lobbying has paid off and the Americans have been made to believe that only with the PPP leader at the helm can Pakistan measure up to the US’s counterterrorism standards.

Come next year, that is 2009, the US Congress enacts the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act (the Kerry-Lugar-Berman law), which ensures an annual aid of $1.5 billion, along with an unspecified amount for security related assistance, to Pakistan, from 2010 to 2014. In return, Pakistan is required to demonstrate its commitment to fight extremism, terrorism and proliferation of nuclear weapons – the major items on Washington’s foreign policy agenda.

Not only that, the Act also stipulates the strengthening of democracy in Pakistan, ‘non-interference’ of non-representative institutions in political matters and civilian control over military affairs as preconditions for uninterrupted capital inflows from the US. These provisions raise the hackles of the security establishment. However, Islamabad finally accepts the aid – with all strings attached.

This chapter from our recent past brings to light the political economy of the US aid to Pakistan in recent years. The US knows for a fact that a capital deficient country like Pakistan placed in a challenging geostrategic environment is badly in need of foreign assistance, not only to keep the wheels of its economy moving but also to buy the equipment deemed essential for its security. The civilian governments of Pakistan have also looked to the US for underwriting their security and stability costs, believing that the aid would prop them up against ‘hostile’ forces.

At the same time, the fact that Islamabad’s support is necessary for winning the war in Afghanistan, or at the very least making a face-saving exit from the roiled country, has not been lost on Washington either. It was only three decades ago that Pakistan helped the US in defeating its erstwhile adversary, the USSR, in Afghanistan. Islamabad, on the other hand, knows that the Washington is aware of both its constraints and importance.

The Americans have been grossly mistaken in supposing that Pakistan is a pushover, that playing upon enhancing, curtailing or suspending aid and playing off one institution against another, would make the country dance to their tune. The US did what it could to prevent Pakistan from going nuclear; and failed. In the wake of the 1998 nuclear tests, Islamabad was slapped with sanctions by the Washington but it still went ahead with its nuclear programme. The curbs were lifted when the two countries, once again, decided to play ball with each other in the post 9/11 war on terror.

The Americans put all kinds of pressure on Pakistan to start a military operation in North Waziristan, the ‘epicentre’ of global terrorism, to weed out Al-Qaeda; but failed again. The operation in the restive region did finally see the light of the day (in 2014), but only when Pakistan’s top brass was convinced that it was high time to initiate one.

When the Enhanced Partnership Act was finally passed, a popularly elected government was in office in Pakistan. Earlier, between 2002 and 2007, when Pakistan received substantial aid from the US, it was a general (Pervez Musharraf) who was calling the shots in the country. But the form of government, democratic or despotic, did not make any difference as far as accepting the aid and its conditions was concerned.

In fact, the PPP government saw in the US aid an opportunity to keep a check on non-civilian elements. Both Zardari and the PPP happily completed their five-year terms in 2013 and then came another popularly elected government to assume the reins of power. However, Washington’s suspicions that Pakistan has been hunting with the hounds and running with the hare in the war on terror did not die down – to date. The Trump administration’s recent decision to bring to a halt all security related assistance to Pakistan was always on the cards. This does not appear to be a decision made in the spur of the moment, although the choice of Trump’s words in his infamous New Year tweet bore an imprint of his personality.

In fact, from the developments of the past one year one could prefigure that the administration was moving in that direction. First, in August 2017, Trump unveiled his Afghan strategy and then in December he announced his national security strategy. Both the strategies warned Pakistan in so many words of having to face dire consequences if it continued to ‘support’ the Afghan Taliban – particularly the Haqqanis.

But even before that, in September, 2016, in a reproving gesture the US Congress shot down an executive proposal to let Pakistan purchase a few F-16 aircrafts from American money. Then nearly a year ago, around the time Trump assumed office, some of the top American think tanks produced a report titled ‘A New US Approach to Pakistan: Enforcing Aid Conditions without Cutting Ties’. Co-authored by a one-time Pakistan ambassador in Washington (the same spin doctor), the report advised the Trump administration to not regard or portray Pakistan as an ally; instead warning it that its status of a major non-Nato ally might be revoked if it failed to demonstrate commitment to American counterterrorism objectives. Such a commitment would entail going all out against the Afghan Taliban including the Haqqanis.

Since 2002, the US may have provided tremendous assistance to Pakistan, as it claims; or the net capital inflows to Pakistan may have only been gobbets compared to the enormous economic cost of the war on terror, as Islamabad sees it. Either way, the size of the aid is beside the point. What is important is the fact that Pakistan needed the money and the US was in need of Pakistan.

Don’t they need each other now? Or, to put it in terms of political economy, what’s the opportunity cost of the suspension of US aid for both the countries? Given the size of the US budget, or for that matter the country’s spending in Afghanistan, aid to Pakistan has not made a hole in its pocket. But for Pakistan, which is facing a balance of payment problem and where domestic resources always fall below the desired level, the US aid is important, both in its own right and for the reason that American opposition can scuttle assistance from multilateral donors such as the IMF.

At the same time, Pakistan is the most cost-effective conduit for transit of American consignments to and from a landlocked Afghanistan. Without Pakistan’s support it will be difficult for the US to make substantial gains in Afghanistan. Thus, the opportunity cost of the dip in bilateral relations will be high for both countries and it’s likely that each side will review their positions.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

Email: [email protected]

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