July 11, 2011

Furious Pakistani Backlash Calls Washington Bluff

What theoretically began as a position of strength has already eroded into weakness. Praised on the U.S. side, both inside the Beltway and with American voters, the decision to halt a chuck of military aid to Islamabad met widespread condemnation from the Pakistani establishment. Although the White House’s cut suggested the American people formed half of its political target, Pakistan’s backlash appears to be winning out.

"This is a 'hold,'" explained Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan, who denied that the impasse symbolized a “permanent rift” in U.S.-Pakistani relations. "It's again directly tied to those decisions by the Pakistani military to curtail training and to not grant visas for some of the U.S. personnel we need to get in. So if those things change, the aid will change as well.”

One key to understanding the present breakdown (and all that it represents between Washington and Islamabad) is not falling for “the end of relations” hype. Far from this outcome, withholding or threatening to withhold aid until U.S. conditions are met is business as usual in Pakistan. And in this business, what goes unsaid often matters more than the transcript. The second question everyone seems to asking is what needs to change in order to unlock the suspended funds.

So when Lapan says the aid is “directly tied to curtailing training and visas,” the opposite can be inferred.

Despite a coordinated script, bits and pieces of the truth can be found throughout Washington’s reaction. State Spokeswomen Victoria Nuland stuck to the trainer line on Monday, but she also told reporters of the meeting between U.S. "Special Envoy" Mark Grossman and Pakistani Ambassador Haqqani, “I’m not going to get into the precise details, because some of them go to our intelligence relationship.” She would only respond, “We’re not prepared to continue providing that at the pace that we were providing it unless and until we see certain steps taken.”

A follow up is then attempted: “What steps do you want Pakistanis to take before you can remove the suspension of military aid to Pakistan?” Never fully answering the question, Nuland replies that the Obama administration is, “looking to improve our cooperation in counterterrorism, in counterinsurgency, and there are a number of aspects there that need to be improved.”

Obviously trainers aren’t the only pieces of this puzzle.

Pakistanis thoroughly understand the game being played. Its officials, soldiers and citizens know the suspension of U.S. aid is an open-ended demand for comply with U.S. orders: invade North Waziristan and all other areas under militant control, clean up the military and ISI, green-light a CIA spy network, deliver Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mullah Omar. Pakistanis know this to be certain because the aid was offered under the same pretext, and they’re even angrier that Washington is holding up reimbursement funds, which they believe have already been earned. Islamabad also planned ahead this time. While its “all-weather relationship” with Beijing always lurked behind the shadows of its stormy relationship with Washington, China is now being flaunted as a viable military alternative.

On Sunday night a senior Pakistani official told CBS News, "This tightening of U.S. military aid was expected. That's where our long-term relations with China will help to meet this gap."

Western diplomats wasted no time downplaying China’s role on Monday, and Beijing is unlikely to fill America’s financial role in Pakistan overnight. Nevertheless, its deployment in a propaganda role underlines Washington’s dangerous gamble in a hostile environment. Why would U.S. officials already walk back on their threats if China isn’t considered a viable counterweight? Clearly some truth is perceived within Islamabad’s bravado - and to argue that U.S. aid has historically outpaced China’s is to disregard the future.

With India welcoming Washington’s decision and condemning U.S. arms that “upset regional equilibrium,” both Pakistan and China will continue to expand their relationship across all fields.

It would not be surprising if U.S. aid unfroze itself in the coming weeks. The futile nature of establishing a relationship based on “carrots and sticks” is strikingly exposed by Nuland, who invokes the very name of counterinsurgency as Washington rampages through Pakistan’s political and military spheres. The Obama administration even seems to have realized that no substantial results would be produced in Islamabad's mindset and behavior. As if it called its own bluff.

Rather than Islamabad needing the cash, America still can’t afford to lose Pakistan’s allegiance in such a geopolitically sensitive region. Thus instead of being bowed to, the administration may be forced away from its artificial “brink.”

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