Rand Paul's proposal to stop aid to Pakistan a landmark step, but history shows US unlikely to 'disengage' completely

The proposal by Senator Rand Paul to cut off all aid to Pakistan and use the money for building infrastructure in the United States is surely one of the most reasonable proposals to be made. After all, there is more than enough data to indicate that Pakistan is more enemy than ally, funding terrorists who kill US soldiers in Afghanistan, while its nationals are part of nearly every major terrorist attack in Europe and the United States. The approving tweet by President Donald Trump illustrates the rising resentment against a state that has proved itself traitorous several times over.

The proposal was preceded by the State Department announcing a suspension of military aid to Pakistan to the tune of a little over $200 million, which is part of a tranche of authorised aid of about $1.6 billion for FY2017 and FY2018. Though exact figures are unclear, a State Department freeze will probably affect Foreign Military Financing – the funds provided to other countries to buy US hardware – as well as the Coalition Support Fund – the money that is regularly reimbursed to Pakistan for its assistance in the war on terror. However, unnamed US officials also made the now expected statement that "exceptions" to the freeze would be made on national security considerations.

File image of US senator Rand Paul. Image courtesy: Twitter@RandPaul

File image of US senator Rand Paul. Image courtesy: Twitter@RandPaul

It is therefore hardly surprising that the senator's statement didn't cause an uproar in Pakistan. Barring an odd burning of the flag, and excepted official statements of "betrayal", Pakistanis seemed to have brushed off these developments, accustomed as they are to the US threatening to cut aid or worse, without anything very serious coming out of it.

This has been proved time and again in the past four decades or more. Aid dipped sharply towards the end of the 1970s as apprehension began to climb on persistent intelligence from the Central Intelligence Agency on Pakistan's construction of a uranium enrichment facility. With outrage in the media, and ‘warnings’ by various officials, military aid was cut off, even as food assistance continued.

Pakistan hit lucky with the invasion of the Soviets into Afghanistan in 1979. Despite the United States’ sworn objections to nuclear proliferation, concerns on Pakistan’s ambitions in this area were set aside with a most convenient piece of legislation known as the "Pressler Amendment" in 1985.

Named after Senator Larry Pressler, the amendment used some very curious language. The amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 states that no military technology or assistance would be provided to Pakistan unless the president certified that Pakistan "does not possess a nuclear explosive device and that the proposed United States military assistance program will reduce significantly the risk that Pakistan will possess a nuclear explosive device".

Since Pakistan was careful not to declare a fully assembled nuclear capability, this was read in US circles as meaning that it did not yet ‘possess’ a weapon. The second clause would have caused apoplexy in Indian circles since it hinted that as long as Pakistan had enough conventional military assistance from the United States, it would not go the nuclear route.

In the event, president after president provided the necessary certification for continued military assistance, even as Congressional testimonies were warning of the advent of an "Islamic bomb". The economic aid, which is always at least half of overall aid, did not even come up for discussion. Overall aid reduced, but never ever stopped entirely.

In the event, the Pakistanis did go nuclear, used its conventional strength to allow an adventure in Kargil, and routed US secret funds to arm the worst elements in the "Afghan resistance". The result is several thousand Afghans died, not to mention a good many Americans both in Afghanistan and back home.

Unsurprisingly, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 also benefitted Pakistan in financial terms, with aid rising from a mere $177 million that year to $831 million (2002), climbing thereafter to a billion a year. This also led to the beginning of the so-called "Coalition Support Funds" which were meant to be reimbursements – to mainly Rawalpindi – for expenses in support of the "war on terror".

The Pakistanis milked that dry with typical South Asian ease, and it was not until questions began to be raised in Congress that greater scrutiny was brought to bear on the accounting process. As recently as 2016, total aid spent was well above $600 million, keeping Pakistan among the top recipients of US aid.

The International Monetary Fund has also come to the rescue of Pakistan with 12 IMF programmes in the last 28 years. The Fund’s assistance was particularly vital at a time when Pakistan was in danger of defaulting on its foreign debts in the year 2000. The crisis was exacerbated by the country’s nuclear tests and a military coup by General Pervez Musharraf.

It was not until after 2001 and the 9/11 attacks that Pakistan came out of an economic trough with an IMF programme that included debt re-scheduling/write-offs and generous grants by the United States. Certainly, US economic assistance both direct and indirect saved Pakistan from becoming a complete economic basket case.

Senator Rand’s proposal, if implemented, will be a landmark step since it will affect all aid – economic and military – to Pakistan. Don’t, however, hold your breath.

History has shown time and again that the bureaucratic underground and expert lobbying groups will soon get their act together, and plead ‘national security’ as grounds with a view to keeping Pakistan ‘engaged’.

They will argue that aid provides leverage over Pakistani decision making – a view that has been repeatedly negated over the years – and that this will assist 'democracy' in Pakistan. The Pakistan Army, which is now running the country, read the Americans far better than the Americans, who haven't even begun to decipher them.

It is not for nothing that they prefer to pull strings from behind the prime minister of the moment to ensure the façade of democracy is maintained. Continued ‘engagement’ is also ensured by the ‘leak’ of a threatened terrorist attack by Al-Qaeda, or an Islamic State leader suddenly emerging from obscurity in Afghanistan. That will cause US intelligence to pause.

In the coming days, there will also be Pakistani statements of everlasting friendship with China. The proposal by Senator Rand came hot on the heels of the inking of the Long Term Plan 2017-2030 between China and Pakistan. It is this document that provides guidelines for the Pakistan-China relationship – which is updated every two years.

The present iteration seems to cover everything from power projects to currency swap and local government. While the Great Chinese Wall around Pakistan is slowly being built project by project, it forms no part of Beijing’s plan to bankroll the Pakistani state. Neither is it likely to want Pakistan to end access to US defence technology. China will try to soothe the waters and ensure that US aid continues. It will probably succeed. That’s the tragedy.

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Updated Date: Jan 08, 2018 14:40:52 IST

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