FeaturedInternationalVolume 13 Issue # 04

Divorce or tactical separation?

After announcement of its policy for South Asia and Af-Pak, US President Trump’s administration is considering imposing certain sanctions on Pakistan and withdrawing Islamabad’s non-NATO ally of Washington status. Although the Trump administration has not taken a final decision, withdrawing the non-NATO ally status is quite likely. There have been reports circulating in the national and international media that the US may also declare Pakistan a state sponsoring terrorism.


Insofar as US sanctions on Pakistan are concerned, the US may stop importing some commodities from Pakistan, investing in Pakistan while also halting civilian aid. Military aid to Pakistan from the US since long has been suspended; only costs incurred by Pakistani security forces in counterterrorism operations on the Afghan border are reimbursed through the mechanism of the Coalition Support Fund (CSF). So other than economic sanctions by Washington, there could be no other restrictions which the US could impose on Pakistan. The US sanctions would not be  as effective as the economic sanctions which Washington imposed for decades on Iran. However, it must be mentioned that the economic and military sanctions on Iran have been effective because most of the NATO and non-NATO allies of the US cooperated in effectively enforcing sanctions on Tehran. But Pakistan’s case is different. One could argue that none of the US allies would necessarily cooperate with Washington in imposing sanctions. Moreover economic or military sanctions on Pakistan may be significantly diluted because of Sino-Pakistan cooperation on CPEC, and enhanced relations with Russia.


On the other hand the US could withdraw the non-NATO ally status from Pakistan, but its impact would be more on Washington than Islamabad. The former has reiterated that Pakistan is vital in the war against terror, especially on the Durand Line. Pakistan has been carrying out counterterrorism operations in FATA and rest of the border areas with Afghanistan, mainly on US prodding. Albeit that officially Pakistan has always taken the stance that these offensives have been undertaken in the broader national interest of Pakistan. But apart from the North Waziristan (NW) operation, Zarb-e-Azb, started in June 2014, whose timing were chosen by Pakistan, all other offensives were taken to fulfill the demands of the US. Even the NW operation was started, although after consistent demands and Pakistan’s continuous refusal for years, at the US behest. Nevertheless, it must be mentioned that most of these operations have contributed to strengthening Pakistan’s security. After the launching of Operation Zarb-e-Azb followed by Operation Radul Fassad, FATA has been largely purged of Al Qaeda and its affiliated local and global terrorist groups including the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which to a great extent has been neutralized after a decade of ruthless terrorist attacks by it across the length and breadth of the country from its bases in FATA. So Pakistan no longer requires extensive military operations and, thus, will not need consistent funding under the CSF. Therefore, if the Trump administration does withdraw non-NATO ally status and, concomitantly, stops some specific funding like the CSF, then Pakistan may not be that greatly affected.


The more critical step which Washington could take against Pakistan is declaring Pakistan a state sponsoring terrorism. This measure by Washington, as said earlier, would be costly but cannot be ruled out, particularly when a shoot-from-the-hip cowboy like Donald Trump occupies the Oval Office. Trump’s antipathy towards Pakistan is well known but successful diplomacy needs to keep a balance. Without doubt, the US may have complaints regarding Pakistan, particularly its role in Afghanistan, but it does not follow that Islamabad be declared a state sponsoring terrorism. Because Pakistan as a state and society has given more sacrifices in the global war on terror (GWoT) than any other country. Its sacrifices  have been overwhelmingly more than the US’s, which has been leading the GWoT. So it would be extremely unjust to Pakistan to declare it as a state sponsoring terrorism. At the same time, Pakistani policymakers should also put their own house in order, as recently suggested by former Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, a key but estranged leader of the ruling PML-N. On the state level there should be zero tolerance for radicalism and militant groups. Irrespective of the fact whether action against militancy and its perpetrators is demanded by the US or any other country. Because it is the question of Pakistan’s national security and international prestige.


Coming back to the likelihood of Washington declaring Pakistan a state sponsoring terrorism, despite Trump being in the saddle in Washington, it would be very difficult. It must be recalled that in the 1990s before the 9/11 attack in New York, Washington under President Bill Clinton’s administration was threatening Pakistan to declare it a state sponsoring terrorism. However, the US did not follow through because of lack of evidence. Since the launching of the US-led GWoT in late 2001, in the wake of the attacks on the US mainland, Pakistan has been supporting the US and giving unsurpassed sacrifices in the said war. In this context if Pakistan was not declared a state sponsoring terrorism in the 1990s, it would be very difficult today. The reason is such an argument and assessment could not be sold to the international community.


Coming to the strained US-Pakistan relationship, the point is that scope of mutual ties cannot be confined to the issues of terrorism and Afghanistan. There is a historical context to the Pakistan-US relationship. Pakistan has been a key ally of the US during the Cold War between Washington and the defunct USSR. It was Pakistan which was instrumental in the thaw in ties between Beijing and Washington in the 1970s. Pakistan was the rallying ground for US-sponsored anti-Soviet Afghan resistance in the 1980s. On the other hand, the US role in the development of Pakistan has been substantial. The US has been the biggest aid donor to Pakistan; even more so than China. Thus, imposing sanctions and restrictions on Pakistan by the US would not serve any purpose. In particular when the role of Pakistan in the stability and peace in Afghanistan and the region could be likened to that of a master key.


Therefore, Washington, instead of imposing sanctions on Pakistan, must engage Pakistan and there should be more communication between the two sides to iron out differences. Moreover, the US and Pakistan should look for ways and means to widen the scope of their relations. This would serve both countries’ interests without compromising the interest of either side.