External Affairs

US Ambassador Discusses Pakistan Aid Cut With India

Indian officials cautiously optimistic that there is now greater willingness in Washington to follow through on their threat to cut assistance to Pakistan

File photograph of Ambassador Kennth Juster. Credit: @markwarner/Twitter

New Delhi: US ambassador to India Kenneth Juster met with the Indian foreign secretary S. Jaishankar for the first time after Washington indicated that it has decided to withhold at least $900 million in military aid to Pakistan.

The meeting between Jaishankar and Juster took place Friday morning, where they discussed latest developments, including the US move to cut military aid to Islamabad for not acting against the Haqqani network and Afghan Taliban.

There has been no official statement about the meeting, neither has there been any response from the Indian government on the US announcement about suspension of military assistance to Pakistan.

While US administrations have used harsh words in the past, officials here remain cautiously optimistic that there is now greater willingness in Washington to follow through on their threat to cut assistance to Pakistan. At the same time, there is also awareness that the US decision has to do mainly with President Donald Trump’s frustration over the continuing deployment of US troops in Afghanistan.

Trump had been keen to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan; therefore, he had only reluctantly agreed to increase their numbers under pressure from his generals.

However, as Trump indicated when he unveiled his South Asia strategy in August, putting pressure on Pakistan was his pound of flesh in return for agreeing to a troop increase in Afghanistan.  At that time, Indian officials had been heartened by Trump’s tough words on Pakistan, but had been waiting to see the follow-up.

A report in The Washington Post had indicated in December that a decision was imminent. Trump’s tweet on the first day of 2018 gave a political push from the White House.

It was clear that the US state department had not even decided on the exact quantum of aid that would be cut before it went public. At a background briefing in Washington on January 4, state department officials also stressed that the aid cut was reversible “if they undertake to take the measures that we’ve asked of them”.

It was pointed out that there had been “numerous conversations” with Pakistan over the last few months. There were also “detailed” discussions during high level visits by defence secretary Jim Mattis and secretary of state Rex Tillerson and in their meetings with Pakistani foreign minister Khwaja Asif to Washington. An US inter-agency team had also gone to Pakistan in the fall of 2017 to continue these negotiations.

“So they know exactly what it is that we’ve asked of them, and the evaluation to date has been that they have done – they have not taken decisive action on our requests. And so the decision was made to take this step as one step to indicate that we cannot continue business as usual with the Pakistani government if they are not going to be a partner with us,” said a state department official in the briefing for reporters.

Interestingly, the US official said that while public pronoucements have focussed on safe havens for thr Haqqani network and Taliban, conversations with Pakistan have also included “concerns about their nuclear program… the ability of anti-India groups like Lashkar-e Tayyiba and Jaish-e Mohammed to fundraise and operate; and Hafiz Saeed, the head of Lashkar-e Tayyiba, who was recently released from house arrest.”

US officials had indicated on Thursday that the aid suspension would impact the State Department’s foreign military financing (FMF) and the Department of Defense’s Coalition Support Funds (CSF).

According to a report of the Congressional Research Service, FMF to Pakistan for fiscal year 2016 and 2017 was $255 million each. The amount appropriated in a certain year usually ‘expires’ by September 30 of the next year. Therefore, Pakistan’s funds under FMF for FY 2016 were lapsing in September 2017. Tillerson gave directions at the time of its expiry to keep $255 million separately and “withhold placing any of those funds on actual contacts”. The State Department needs to take a decision on $255 million for FY 2017 only by September of his year.

The CSF funds for 2017, as authorised by Congress, stand at $900 million. Out of this, $400 million was eligible for Haqqani Network-related certification requirements that cannot be waived by the administration. This was not likely to have been given as the US had not issued that certification for CSF funds for 2015 and 2016 either. Pentagon spokesperson Commander Patrick Evans said that the entire $900 million would be frozen.

However, an Agence France Presse report on Friday quoted a “senior administration official” as saying that “approximately two billion worth of equipment and coalition support funding…is in play”.

There seemed to be widespread support on Capitol Hill for the US decision on cutting aid to Pakistan, with critical voices muted.

Republican senator Bob Corker, who is also the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, supported the administration’s decision. Another Republican senator, Rand Paul, said that he would introduce legislation to eliminate all US aid to Pakistan. Citing the presidential tweet, Paul said, “I’ve been fighting to end Pakistani aid for years. But now we have a breakthrough

Meanwhile, Pakistan foreign minister Khawaja M. Asif accused the US of being a “friend who always betrays”.

The Pakistan foreign office claimed that Washington’s “shifting goalposts” was “counterproductive”, but also noted that Islamabad remained “engaged with the US administration on the issue of security cooperation and awaits further details”.

“It, however, needs to be appreciated that Pakistan has fought the war against terrorism largely from its own resources, which has cost over $120 billion in 15 years. We are determined to continue to do all it takes to secure the lives of our citizens and broader stability in the region,” said the foreign office statement.

US officials claim that despite Pakistan’s public bluster, Islamabad could take a more conciliatory position. “What matters, I think, to the Pakistanis is the – is the symbolism of doing this, that it represents a deterioration of our relationship, something that they care about a great deal,” said a senior administration official.