New Delhi: Last week, the Trump administration took stock of Pakistan’s fight against terrorism and found it wanting. However, the new administration was only following the template set by the Obama administration on its Pakistan policy.
On July 21, Pentagon announced that US defence secretary Jim Mattis could not certify that Pakistan has taken demonstrable steps against the Haqqani network. Pakistan, hence, would not be given the remaining $350 million of the $900 million in military reimbursement for fiscal year 2016.
Precedence set by Obama administration
Mattis was, however, following a precedence. Ash Carter, Barack Obama’s defence secretary was the first to decline to certify that Pakistan had done enough to control the Haqqani network, which is viewed as the top US force protection threat anywhere in the world. According to the National Defense Authorisation Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2015, around $350 million was tied to a clean chit from Carter certifying that:
“(1) Pakistan has undertaken military operations in North Waziristan that have contributed to significantly disrupting the safe haven and freedom of movement of the Haqqani network in Pakistan; and
(2) Pakistan has taken steps that have demonstrated a commitment to ensuring that North Waziristan does not return to being a safe haven for the Haqqani network.”
NDAA for FY 2015 was passed in December 2014.
Coalition support funds to Pakistan
US began to reimburse Pakistan for its support for Washington-led counter-terrorism operations through coalition support funds (CSF) from 2002 – a year after the September 11 attack. Out of the $33.38 billion worth of financial transfers to Pakistan in the last 15 years, CSF reimbursements comprised the biggest chunk at $14.5 billion (43.4%).
During the end of the Bush administration in 2008, a review of the impact of CSF funds – meant to finance counter-terrorism operations in north-west Pakistan – concluded that Islamabad had “diverted much of the money to build up its forces against India”. This conclusion came on top of a study of the government accountability office which called for more oversight on approving Pakistani requests for reimbursement, which till then had rarely been denied.
Following the implementation of the new CSF guideline, there was a slowdown in processing receipts. The Abbottabad raid to kill al Qaida’s Osama Bin Laden and the shooting of two Pakistani men by a US CIA contractor in Lahore further deepened mutual suspicion. There was also no transfers of CSF funds from December 2010 to mid 2012, following Pakistan closing the ground lines of communications over the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers on the border with Afghanistan by a NATO attack helicopter.
With an eye on the imminent drawdown in Afghanistan, in 2014 US apologised and began clearing pending dues.
US transferred substantial amount of CSF between 2011 till 2014, but the disenchantment in Washington over Pakistan had already set in.
Previous efforts to scale down funds to Pakistan
Carter’s refusal to certify last year was the culmination of a gradual process by the Obama administration to scale down funds. Besides the limitations on CSF, there are other conditions on aid to Pakistan, but till date they have been quietly waived due to “US national security interests”.
The NDAA Act for fiscal year 2013 gave the defence secretary a broad canvas to assess Pakistan’s cooperation on maintaining supply lines, action against a broad array of terror groups, including the al Qaida, TTP, Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network, and counter threats from IEDs. This template was also followed in 2014. However, these provisions were not invoked till last year.
The next iteration of the Act for fiscal year 2015 added two more criteria for a certificate to release $300 million, which pertained only to the Haqqani network. There was also a cap of $1 billion on CSF funds for Pakistan. In 2016, Carter refused to give the certificate as mentioned in Section 1222, which brought the amount released to Pakistan down to $700 million. This was a sharp drop from the CSF financial transfer of $1.198 billion in 2014.
Thereafter, when the US Congress passed the annual defence policy bill for 2016, it added a third rule for the defence secretary to review – whether or not Pakistan government was “actively” coordinating with the Afghan government to “restrict the movement of militants, such as the Haqqani network, along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border”. This was the ‘certificate’ that Mattis refused to issue and automatically denied $350 million to Pakistan under CSF.
When Mattis has to go through the process again for reimbursements for 2017, he will have to look at yet another rule to consider. This time, he will have to also check whether Pakistan has “shown progress in arresting and prosecuting Haqqani network senior leaders and mid-level operatives”. The chunk of money which will be tied to this certificate is the largest so far – $400 million.
Pakistan losing friends in Capitol Hill
Pakistan does not have many friends in Capitol Hill now. That was amply demonstrated yet again in the defence policy bill for fiscal year 2018, which has been passed by the House on July 11 and now needs to be approved by the Senate. The House version has brought down the cap on CSF transfers to Pakistan from $900 million to $800 million. Further, it has added two more conditions that the defence secretary will have to take into view while certifying. These are:
“(5) Pakistan is not using its military or any funds or equipment provided by the United States to persecute minority groups seeking political or religious freedom, including the Balochi, Sindhi, and Hazara ethnic groups and minority religious groups, including Christian, Hindu, and Ahmadiyya Muslim.
(6) Pakistan is not providing military, financial, or logistical support to specially designated global terrorists operating in Afghanistan or Pakistan.”
Trump report follows observations by previous governments
This is not the only Pakistan related news from the Trump administration that has made headlines in India. On July 19, the state department released the 2016 annual country reports on terrorism. It was projected by some quarters as a diplomatic victory for India that Pakistan was listed as one of the ‘safe havens’ for terror groups in the first such list brought out by the state department under Trump.
But the 2016 report has largely taken the same road as all the other previous annual reports as a recap of incidents and steps taken by government. The language is often strikingly similar, with the only difference being in the year.
The phrase ‘safe haven’ was used for Pakistan even six years ago in the 2010 report, in connection with cross-border movement of Afghan Taliban.
The key major development recounted was Pakistan returning to the scanner of Financial Action Task Force (FATF). It points out that “concerns” had been raised by FATF members in October 2016 itself about Pakistan not curbing the fundraising capacities of groups listed by United Nations like Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba.
Even in the last few weeks of the Obama administration, the US had cautioned Pakistan on the consequences of returning to FATF’s bad books. This had apparently been the immediate cause for Pakistan suddenly confining JuD supremo Hafiz Saeed to ‘house arrest’ in January. Islamabad continues to be on the agenda of the FATF for now.
Republican congressman Ted Poe, who is also the chair of the House subcommittee on terrorism, non-proliferation and trade, expressed unhappiness with the report claiming that it was a “continuation” of previous Pakistan policy, since it calls Pakistan an “invaluable counterterrorism partner”.
In the Obama administration, the push to cut funds from Pakistan by pushing Carter to withhold his certification was led from the White House.
Even as the Trump administration is taking longer than expected to review its policy on Afghanistan, it is clear that Pakistan remains out of favour.
However, with Afghanistan remaining a key security concern for US in the region, it could become important for Washington to ensure that it continues to have enough leverage to stop Pakistan from being the “spoiler” in Afghanistan.
In the Trump White House, the president has remained remarkably silent on Afghanistan. He had also hardly made any comment on the US’s longest running war even during the campaign. Instead, he seems to have outsourced his policy planning to Mattis and national security advisor H.R. McMaster, both of who had field experience in Afghanistan.
The trend of gradual decrease in funds for Pakistan is not likely to be reversed, but US plans for increasing its troop levels in Afghanistan would again raise the importance of keeping the ground supply lines unclogged.
There are not much expectation that Pakistan will deliver the Taliban to the table or take any substantive action against the Haqqanis. With the Taliban leadership not yet showing any signs of coming to the table for serious reconciliation talks, the US is likely to have enough troops in Afghanistan to ensure that there was at least an impasse in the security situation.