By Saghir Ahmed
Beneath the bravado and anger at being called names by US President Donald Trump and his administration, there is panic in Pakistan. More and more Pakistanis are fearing that the US, in its current mood, may impose sanctions and even resort to select military action on its border with Afghanistan to knock-off terrorist hideouts.
Responses to media reports and perceptive writings reflect a sullen mood that apprehends the worst at the hands of the US that is seen as determined to punish Pakistan for “not doing more”.
One such apprehension is that the US may club Pakistan with North Korea and that Trump is seen as itching for action that would make the world sit up and take note of him. Very gradually, though, there is realization that the “all weather friend” China may issue statements from time to time, but is not about to go the whole hog against the Americans and certainly not in mood to loosen its purse-strings to bail out the fledgling Pakistani economy. Actually, most Pakistanis have been blind to the Chinese record of never giving grants. And there is no free lunch.
At long last, with the panic button pressed in many quarters, there is hark back to what made the Americans mad – the detection and killing of \Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistani territory, indeed, secure in a garrison town. And although Barrak Obama has insisted, even after leaving the White House, that the US did not think that Pakistan, at any level in its government, was in the know of bin Laden’s presence, it has stretched credulity too far and for too long.
“It is unfathomable that he (Osama) could have lived in such a large and well protected house without anyone questioning who its occupant is. Especially with a military base/training institution being so close the Pakistani forces and intelligence failed to figure out things but the US intelligence was able to get credible input and conduct the strike,” wonders a reader in Dawn newspaper after the US lawmakers are apprised of Pakistan’s role of selling “lies and deceit” to successive American administrations. Pakistan’s failure, in the recent years at least, is being attributed to the absence of a full-time foreign minister as long as Nawaz Sharif was the prime minister. Sharif had Sartaj Aziz as foreign affairs advisor and was taking all foreign policy decisions himself – of course, on dictations of the Army Headquarters.
Another ‘failing’ of the government being pointed out is absence of a lobbyist in Washington. Earlier governments did have lobbyists that were pretty successful. In 2016, Sharif Government did make some moves to hire lobbyists. But nothing came of it. The fact of the matter is that a lobbyist can succeed in Washington only to the extent of influencing policies either way. But when a whole administration is against – in the present case, the president downwards, lobbying is ineffective. That has happened to Pakistan in the recent years.
A third realization is coming through sensitive media analysts and security experts who question the efficacy of nurturing “strategic assets” against India and Afghanistan. But they form the core of Pakistan’s strategy and part of its self-defeating game that has earned it opprobrium in the democratic world and benefitted only the country’s military establishment. “It is beyond ones comprehension why strategic assets are preferred to US aid which benefits the whole country,” a reader asks.
Known to have supporters in the US’s state department and the Pentagon for long years, Pakistan feels friendless in the US.
Not a single senator spoke for Pakistan at last week’s hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the administration’s new South Asia strategy. The meeting was told that the Trump administration’s decision to suspend its security assistance to Pakistan has so far failed to achieve its objective: forcing Islamabad to change its policies.
Pakistan dominated part of the hearing as both US officials and lawmakers acknowledged that Islamabad had a key role in bringing peace to Afghanistan. The committee’s Republican chairman, Senator Robert Corker, brought Pakistan into the discussion in his opening remarks, praising the Trump administration’s Jan 4 decision to suspend US security aid to Pakistan.
“This administration has also rightly drawn a clear line with Pakistan, suspending security assistance of over a billion as long as Islamabad continues to shelter Haqqani, and other terror groups that target innocent civilians, as well as US and allied forces,” he said. But Senator Ben Cardin, the committee’s senior Democrat, specifically wanted to know if the decision had brought “any change” in Pakistan’s behaviour as security assistance can be restored only if Islamabad took ‘decisive and sustained’ action against terrorist groups. The administration’s reply was a clear NO. “There certainly hasn’t been any change that we would consider final and irrevocable,” said Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, one of the two senior US officials who represented the administration at the hearing. “They have engaged in discussions with us, but there hasn’t been a sufficient amount of action yet such that we would be lifting that suspension of security assistance.”
Asked if the Pakistanis knew what the US expected from them, Mr Sullivan said: “They understand what we expect, our suspension of security assistance continues until we see more evidence that they are in fact taking action”.
Randall G. Schriver Assistant Secretary, Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, US Department of Defence, however, told the committee that Washington believes Pakistan was not just an important partner but “they’re absolutely key to our strategy succeeding”. He said that during a recent visit to Islamabad, US Secretary of Defence James Mattis made clear Washington’s “interest in continuing to partner with them,” but he also “made clear that we must see a change in Pakistan’s behaviour in particular areas where we have great concerns”.
Earlier at the hearing, Mr Sullivan also read out a written statement, stating that the US could resume security assistance to Pakistan “if Islamabad takes decisive and sustained actions against all terrorist groups in the country.”
Reporting the proceedings in Washington, Dawn newspaper noted a shift in the US stance that would not be to Pakistan’s liking or relief.
“But the statement also added new conditions for rebuilding US ties with Pakistan, which may not be acceptable to Islamabad, such as seeking more restraint in Pakistan’s military nuclear and missile programmes and closer alignment of the country’s non-proliferation policies with those of the US.
“We also encourage restraint in Pakistan’s military nuclear and missile programmes, and seek continued, closer alignment of Pakistan’s non-proliferation policies with our own,” he said.
Mr Sullivan explained that the strategy that President Donald Trump announced in August last year was a conditions-based approach instead of one predicated on arbitrary timelines.
The newspaper said that the new approach “marks a change from the status quo” in US-Pakistan relations by holding Pakistan accountable for its failure to deny alleged sanctuary to militant proxies. This is yet another indication of there being none to effectively defend and protect Pakistan’s interest in Washington, and explains why the panic among the discerning people among the Pakistanis.
(The author is geo-political analyst.)