US-Pakistan row: Sane voices must prevail

Waseem Abbasi

Thursday, July 14, 2011

THE relations between Pakistan and United States had not been in an ideal state since the killing of Osama bin Laden, in Abbottabad this year. However, the recent announcement by the White House to withhold US$800 million of military aid to Pakistan, points to a complete breakdown of dialogue between the two frontline “allies” in the war against terror.
The US move appears to aim at coercing Pakistan into more cooperation. But it is likely to backfire as Pakistan’s powerful military is not in a position to toe the US line in the face of growing anti-US sentiments in the country, especially after unilateral US operation on May 2, which many Pakistanis see as a breach of country’s sovereignty.

White House chief of Staff William Daley said last week that the United States would halt a third of its annual US$2.7 billion security assistance to Islamabad. The US media quoted official as saying that the step was taken in response to Pakistani action of reducing the number of US forces, mostly trainers and technicians in the country.
The tension has risen to the point that Pakistan has threatened to pull back troops from the Afghan border. “I think the next step is, the government or the armed forces will move the soldiers from the border areas,” Pakistan’s defence minister Ahmed Mukhtar was quoted as saying by local news channel Express 24/7.
Although, Pakistan army has announced its resolve to fight the “menace of terrorism with its own resources”, experts believe that the aid cut could seriously affect the army’s capability to open new fronts against militants in semi-autonomous tribal areas.
Considering the delicate regional situation, it is surprising that US has taken such a risky step at this critical juncture. This is likely to hurt the US more than Pakistan.
Firstly, the US military aid had been used as a tool to press Pakistan army to do more in its fight against militants who are launching attack against US and Nato forces in Afghanistan. With the aid-cut US is going to lose that leverage.
Secondly, given the history of the US-Pakistan ties, common Pakistanis find it very hard to believe that US is committed to a long-term partnership with the country. Many believe that US is only interested in “transactional” relationship with the country. The latest US move will only strengthen that belief.
Thirdly, the tension between the US and Pakistan will encourage Islamabad to look more towards China, the country’s main arms supplier. Recently Pakistan has also made overtures towards Iran and Afghanistan to strengthen a regional partnership and to minimise dependence on the US.
All this is happening at a time when US is seeking to navigate an end to a decade-long war in neighbouring Afghanistan. President Obama last month announced US plan to withdraw 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, before a complete pullout by 2014.
For this ambitious plan to succeed, the US would have to either defeat Afghan Taliban or open a dialogue with them. But without the wholehearted support of Pakistan, these objectives are very difficult to achieve.
Therefore I believe the halt in US aid would be temporary and the policymakers in Washington would not sever ties with Pakistan to the extent that the chances of US success in Afghanistan are jeopardised.
On the other hand, despite strong anti-US sentiments in Pakistani public, Islamabad can also not afford to completely cut ties with Washington owing to the former’s economic dependence on International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international organisation where US is extremely influential. The Pakistani military also needs superior US weapons to maintain the power balance against arch-rival India.
In other words, it is in the best interests of both Pakistan and the United States to normalise their ties and break the status quo. I hope sane voices will prevail in Washington and Islamabad and we will see confidence-building measures from both sides in the coming days.

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