Pakistan’s strategic ally versus US?

WEB DESK: China, there is almost a countrywide consensus in Pakistan, is an all weather friend while we continue to try to sustain an increasingly fractious transactional relationship with the United States.

The writing on the wall from such a simplistic and oft repeated mantra is twofold: that while China’s friendship is greatly valued yet it does not have the financial resources or inclination to meet our successive cash-wasting and cash-hungry governments’ demands for what is euphemistically labeled as budget support with foreign assistance while the US has a well developed assistance system, consisting of grants, understandably inextricably linked to its foreign policy aims.

The foregoing presupposes that the US does not have a strategic partnership with Pakistan though periodically turmoil-ridden Afghanistan has fuelled our strategic relevance with the US – twice in less than four decades; its preferred strategic partner is the democratic and financially flush India – evidence of which is apparent in several Obama administration officials exhortations to Pakistan to ‘do more’ to catch the perpetrators of various terror attacks in India. China, not having achieved the status of a military superpower nor considering its massive foreign exchange reserves largely sourced to sales to the sole super power as well as its allies, is naturally reluctant to take a confrontational stance with the US.

However these presuppositions are now being challenged on multiple fronts. The US warnings to China developing a series of man-made islands in the South China Sea with military build-up – which reportedly holds around 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of gas – have become more strident over the past year; as have Chinese warnings to US surveillance craft delivered from the new early-warning radar stations positioned on these islands or from Chinese navy ships. The positions of the two countries with respect to these islands are now regarded as irreconcilable.

Second decades-long demand by China (and India) to have a greater say in the running of multilateral banks (whose presidency was divided at the time of their establishment between the US, Europe and Japan enabling the G-7 to manipulate lending) remained unmet which finally prompted the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank (AIIB) led by China.

The US and Japan have not yet joined the Bank though several European countries have. Third the Indian ambition to get a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council, fully supported by the US generating considerable angst in Pakistan for obvious reasons, is expected to be checkmated by China through the use of its veto. China is also reportedly coordinating with Pakistan to block India’s entry in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in the name of parity, stating that it would either support NSG entry for both India and Pakistan, or neither.

Fourth China is increasingly engaged in trade/investment deals estimated at around one trillion dollars focused on reenergizing the historical silk route, linking its central and western regions with Europe, with the 46 billion dollar package for Pakistan under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor considered a major component of this objective. And finally China has in recent years extended its ties with contiguous countries particularly Central Asian Republics and Afghanistan; and last year became part of the Quadrilateral Consultative Group that includes the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan – an inclusion initially hailed by the US.

The US with its traditional transactional relationship to Pakistan has typically responded to what it considers is our continued support for the Afghan Taliban: withdrawal of financial assistance (the House Armed Services Committee also approved language to prevent 450 million dollars in military aid unless the Pentagon certifies that Pakistan is working with Afghanistan to “block the movement of militants) – first through linking assistance to Pakistan with ‘do more’ against the Haqqani network, later refusing to subsidize the sale of F-16s though the sale itself was approved, and more recently taking the stance that the US would continue to use drones to bomb its enemies wherever they are in the world.

Is Pakistan in May 2016 likely to accept these terms and conditions as a fait accompli? Or is the response going to be subtly different based on the changing realities in our region? These questions have gathered momentum subsequent to the death of Mullah Mansour, the Afghan Taliban leader who claimed responsibility for many an attack on Afghan and US forces in Afghanistan, in the first-ever drone strike in Balochistan on 21st May. The Prime Minister, who also holds the Foreign Affairs portfolio, departed for London on Sunday, a day after the attack, for a scheduled medical checkup (with open heart surgery scheduled tomorrow); on arrival at Heathrow airport, in response to a query, he stated that he received a call from John Kerry at 10:30 pm Saturday, after the drone strike that killed Mullah Mansour.

In the Prime Minister’s absence, expected to be for more than two and a half weeks, Federal Finance Minister Ishaq Dar has been deputed to run the affairs of government; however it is doubtful if Dar would chair a meeting of the National Security Council that would have, according to the Interior Minister in his press conference this week, met under the Prime Minister’s chairmanship as soon as he returned. On Sunday Barack Obama hailed the death as an “important milestone” in efforts to bring peace to Afghanistan, and added, “where we have a high-profile leader who has been consistently part of plans and operations to potentially harm US personnel and who has been resistant to the kinds of peace talks and reconciliation that ultimately could bring an end to decades of war in Afghanistan, then it is my responsibility as commander in chief not to stand by, but to make sure that we send a clear signal to the Taliban and others that we’re going to protect our people” – the others widely believed to refer to Pakistan.

Notwithstanding the confusion that was generated by senior members of the Sharif administration, particularly with reference to confirming the death of Mullah Mansour, Special Advisor to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs, Tariq Fatemi, still jostling for greater relevance with the Advisor to the Prime Minister on Finance Sartaj Aziz, waited out the weekend and summoned the US Ambassador David Hale on Monday to “express concern” about the air strike maintaining that it was a “breach of the United Nations Charter that guarantees the inviolability of the territorial integrity of its member states.”

Two days later on Wednesday, the Chief of Army Staff also expressed his serious reservations about the drone strike terming it a violation of sovereignty, detrimental to Pak-US ties and regional stability and damaged peace efforts to Ambassador Hale. Reports indicate that Mullah Mansour was coming from Iran, denied by the Iranian government perhaps not as quick to accept the charge of incompetence as publicly acknowledged by former DG ISI Pasha with respect to Osama bin Laden’s residency in Abbottabad, a scant one mile from Kakul, considered lesser than the other evil of accepting complicity.

One can only hope that Mullah Mansour’s credentials as well as his free movements throughout Pakistan and visits abroad on a Pakistani passport are not similarly explained namely as an outcome of incompetence as opposed to a deliberate policy as it may find very few believers both within and outside the country. Do we have an Afghan policy or does ad hocism prevail with entities within the Pakistani state operating independently leading to no coherent strategy. There is no doubt that our legacy clearly and unambiguously is that of Pakistani state support for the Afghan Taliban.

However Raheel Sharif successfully convinced the world polity through his operation in North Waziristan, a long standing US demand, that the army under his control no longer focuses on the good versus the bad Taliban and an across the broad accountability through operation Zarb-e-Azb has been launched. The paperwork namely the Pakistani passport and national identity card reportedly found on Mullah Mansour’s body challenges Raheel Sharif’s claims.

So what, if anything, has changed in 2016 from 2014/15 or indeed from 2002? Unfortunately in spite of the 46 billion dollar CPEC, considered to be a game-changer for us, the Finance Minister’s reliance on foreign borrowing, mainly from the West, to fund the budget deficit is expected to rise further in 2016-17; Dar’s liaison with the State Department is widely believed to have been a critical factor in his success in accessing funding from multilaterals given that the US plays a significant role on their boards (a US national heads the World Bank). AIIB has yet to begin lending for infrastructure and it is unlikely that funds would be made available for budget support.

The liaison between Dar and the State Department officials has reportedly weakened, as Pakistan’s delivery on not making any distinction between the good and bad Taliban as well as failing to improve governance has come into question.

The reliance of the armed forces on Coalition Support Fund (CSF) to finance the ongoing war on terror is considerable; however, the US is scheduled to end the Fund in any case. Pakistan army’s preferred procurement of defence equipment from the US would also have to be diverted. Or to conclude any attempt to downgrade the, at present, fractured transactional relationship with the US would be a challenge that the country may not be able to meet given Dar’s heavy reliance on foreign support to meet his flawed budget allocations envisaging higher debt servicing costs (due to his heavy reliance on foreign borrowing) as well as on other current expenditure.-Business Recorder